Wednesday, September 21, 2016

So Much Saturation, So Little Sense

There's been another survey about saturation. Can you stomach it? Are we not all sick of saturation stories saturating the media? Well, hold it back. Don't rush to the toilet just yet. There's plenty more saturation still to be wrung from the saturated rag of tourism tossed around by agenda-setting politicians and agitators.

It's Gadeso's turn this time. Its survey into saturation discovers, inter alia, that 80% of Balearic citizens have perceived increased saturation this summer, that 61% are in favour of limits on the number of tourists and that 78% are fully supportive of the ecotax. (I am, incidentally, ceasing to refer to it as the "tourist tax"; it is quite obviously a new ecotax, regardless of what certain members of the government have said in the past.)

Let's just take the 80%. It is possible that they do indeed all "perceive" increased saturation because they have genuinely experienced it. Possible, but also subject to influence. When there is so much talk of saturation and/or massification, then that talk is going to rub off. Repeat the message often enough and enough people will believe it and treat it as gospel.

But if we accept that there is increased saturation - and tourist arrival numbers would suggest that there is - why nevertheless is there such agitation, when majority opinion recognises its root cause? This is the insecurity elsewhere in the Med. Gadeso finds that 65% of those surveyed accept this.

It could of course be that this insecurity persists, thus maintaining elevated levels of demand for Balearic tourism. A political response - and an agitator response - is therefore to seek some form of limit. But what happens if and when the insecurity evaporates? Are limits (whatever these might turn out to be, if any) to then be discarded? In all probability, no. The political agenda since the turn of the century has been dominated by a philosophy of control, even of reduction. This started, as noted yesterday, with the old ecotax and with the aims of the former tourism minister Celestí Alomar.

So, it's all a left-wing conspiracy to cut tourism numbers? Correct? No, not entirely. The "quality tourism" agenda has been one of the right as well. By its very nature it implies reduction. A current quantity of some 13 million tourists per annum to the Balearics couldn't be maintained if strict "quality" requirements were to be insisted upon. This agenda was one advocated by the defunct Unió Mallorquina and has even been voiced by the Partido Popular. Carlos Delgado, when he became tourism minister, alluded to potential reduction in the pursuit of quality and so greater returns per head of tourist population.

Regardless of left or right, why does the notion of limits inspire opposition among some? While it is hard to know definitively what "a limit" should be, intuitively one suspects that there should be one. There is only so much strain that small islands can be subjected to. This doesn't have to be a political discussion; merely a common sense one.

The problem is that the debate, such as it is, has already wandered off into radical territory. The Luddite tendency wants more than limits. It is so anti-tourist that it seems to want an end to tourism full stop. It couches its arguments in terms of the "mass" without ever adequately elucidating what "non-mass " might equate to (if anything) or indeed what, economically, would take up the slack.

The government's folly is in having allowed the more extreme views against tourism to have taken hold. With Podemos in the camp, this has not been surprising, but Més have not helped. In so doing, sensible, clear, objective debate is impossible.

A means of seeking limits is through a form of price engineering. For this, read the ecotax. Celestí Alomar seemed to believe that the old tax would achieve this and bring with it the much-desired "quality tourism". Yet, we now have a government, and a tourism minister, which doesn't necessarily equate the new ecotax with limits. Biel Barceló has maintained that the tax will not affect tourism. By implication, that means it will not lead to a reduction and nor would it necessarily prevent an increase in tourist numbers.

But the tax is bound up in this whole debate, leading one to query the coherence of government thinking. It only needs to look at the experience of Catalonia to know that a tourist tax doesn't stop growth in numbers. They have been going up there since the tax came in four years ago, and they were going up before parts of the Med became virtual tourist no-go areas. So, price engineering via a tax, unless it were really onerous, doesn't necessarily work.

A serious, level-headed debate needs to be had. Will an increasingly febrile atmosphere permit it? Doubtful.

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