Tuesday, September 20, 2016

No Future Without Limits?

The other day, a group of people gathered near the Cathedral. They stood on steps and unfurled a banner. With a hashtag, it said in translation "without limits there is no future". The "limits" was in red, suggesting a red stop sign, the "future" was in green - the way forward, so long as the red is applied.

What were they wanting limits to? It should be obvious. It's been a theme for several weeks. Tourist numbers. "Massification" of tourism and uncontrolled urbanising put basic resources at risk - water, the countryside, the ecosystems.

Who are these people? By Sunday morning, the blog - www.senselimitsnohihafutur.com - had 600 supporters. Teachers, farmers, activists, professors, psychologists, gardeners, doctors, nurses, engineers, salespeople, architects, unionists, lawyers, social workers, painters, dry-stone workers. On and on. Among the 600 some names stood out. Margalida Ramis, spokesperson for the environmentalists GOB; Jaume Adrover, farmer and spokesperson for another environmentalist group, Terraferida; Laura Camargo, university professor and parliamentary deputy for Podemos; Caterina Amengual, environmentalist (but also the government's director for biodiversity); Ivan Murray, geographer and now no longer undertaking a government-sponsored study related to tourism sustainability; Celestí Alomar, former minister of tourism.

Of these, Alomar is perhaps the most interesting. He was the tourism minister who introduced the original ecotax. Writing in July last year, so at a time when the newly elected regional government was just beginning to talk about a revived ecotax, he considered the circumstances that had led the first PSOE-headed government of Francesc Antich to contemplate and to implement the ecotax.

He said that at that time there was fierce international competition for sun-and-beach tourism. It was competition predicated (and not just in Mallorca) on the medium to low end of the market. As a consequence, it was hard to penetrate a more demanding tourism market. Further consequences were seasonality, a loss of identity and a dependence on large international tour operators. It was evident, he argued, that at the start of the new millennium there had to be a strengthening of the Mallorcan tourist product against a coming price war.

The government, therefore, looked to redefine the model of "mass" tourism. More value added to traditional sun-and-beach; diversification of tourist products; an emphasis on sustainability rather than the short-term; action against the consumption of resources; environmental conservation; a smoothing of the flow of tourists.

Above all, and here is maybe the most revealing of all his observations, was that social support was needed in order to reverse a trend by which tourism was being ever more rejected by the resident population. This trend had been brought about by "massification" and the burden being placed on the environment.

In 2001, Alomar famously, or infamously, said that in a few years the "Ballermann" (Arenal) would no longer exist. Package holidaymakers should only make up 20% of all tourists. Instead, there should be independent travellers, golfers, culture-seekers, nature lovers. It was these comments that enraged many Germans. They were no longer wanted by Mallorca.

The ecotax was finally introduced in time for the start of the 2002 season. History is easily rewritten. The ecotax failed because the Partido Popular came to power the following spring and scrapped it (it actually ceased to be at the end of the 2003 season). The tax may have been detested in some quarters, but the slump in tourism in 2002 was principally because of a marked fall in German tourism: the market enraged by Alomar's comments. By 2003, that German tourism had all but recovered.

No one can say what might have happened had the old ecotax remained in place. The revival that occurred in 2003 could well have been an indication. Or it may not have been. But inherent to its introduction, and one can detect this from Alomar's observations, was a reduction in tourist numbers. It's debatable if there would have been one as a consequence of the ecotax, even if he believed that it was a means of disengaging from a price war.

His thoughts about the original ecotax from some seventeen years ago show that little is new. Much of what was thought then is being said now. The current and additional dynamics are well-known, and one of them is the nature of the political narrative. It is unsurprising to see several Podemos names in addition to Laura Camargo on the list. The narrative gives succour to "movements". And some names on the list will be taking part in the two days of activism in Palma later this week.

Alomar had, in 1999, hoped to reverse a trend towards the rejection of tourism. He has now put his name to one of the movements fostered by the current narrative. On Saturday, the activists will hold an "anti-tourist" route starting from Es Baluard. People are invited to go along "dressed as a foreigner".

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