Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Tourism Minister At Long Last?

Spain ranks second and third in the world in terms of two key indicators of tourism performance. The country generates the second highest amount of revenue from tourism (the USA is top) and it receives the third greatest number of international tourists (behind France and the USA). The total contribution of tourism to the economy is around 11% of GDP, and the benefits that growth in tourism bring are reflected in additional employment in various sectors. CaixaBank research suggests that a one per cent rise in tourism GDP leads to 2,200 new jobs in the commercial sector, 10,400 further jobs in the hotel and catering industry, 800 more in agriculture and 680 in construction.

Exceltur, the alliance for touristic excellence, suggests that tourism growth in 2016 will be by one per cent above the general figure for national economic growth of 3.4%. Tourism typically does outperform the economy as a whole. This is one reason why it has been so important in bringing about economic recovery, while it shouldn't be overlooked that without tourism's contribution during the years of crisis Spain would have been in a far greater mess than it was.

It is a sector of strategic importance. While tourism as an industry is very robust, it can be shaken - as one has seen in other destinations. Neighbouring France, the world leader in terms of tourist arrivals, has seen those arrivals slump markedly because of terrorist incidents.

Having a minister responsible for tourism wouldn't prevent terrorist attacks, but if God forbid there were any, then having a minister in place, with a position around the cabinet table, might help in bolstering confidence in this strategic industry. Threats as much as opportunities should mean that Spain has a tourism minister.

One of the odd aspects of the extremely odd situation that has surrounded the national government for several months is that if ministers have to leave their post (even in an acting capacity) for whatever reason, they are not replaced. This happened with José Manuel Soria. After he resigned in April because his name had appeared in the Panama Papers, his entire portfolio was handed over to Luis de Guindos. He, in an acting function, is currently responsible for economic affairs and competitiveness (which he previously had been) and for industry, energy and tourism, the three oddly assembled elements in the Soria portfolio. De Guindos may be very capable (although the FT once suggested that he wasn't), but not even he can do justice to five briefs at the same time. He'll be thankful that tourism has been chugging along so nicely and not been needing any intervention.

While one mentions potential threats, there are also the opportunities and the current strengths of Spain's tourism. Too often, it has seemed, tourism has been taken for granted. This has been the case nationally and regionally. Complacency in the Balearics over decades has meant that economic diversification has never seriously been addressed and nor has the harmful impact of tourism seasonality. Nationally, there isn't the same level of dependence, but this doesn't diminish strategic importance. And at a time of strength, now is the time to reinforce this strength and to build an even more competitive industry, one recognised by a third performance indicator as being the most competitive tourism industry in the world.

Spain has never had a minister dedicated solely to tourism. As a government portfolio, tourism first appeared in 1905. It was part of the development ministry, which is where it stayed until the 1950s when tourism combined with "information". Since then, it has been moved around or even removed. The demand for a dedicated minister has existed since about as long as Spain's tourism boom started, and now there is a very strong rumour circulating that such a minister is about to be created.

If Mariano Rajoy is finally approved once more as prime minister, the signs are that he will increase the number of ministers, and one of these will be a tourism minister. For the first time, therefore, someone with responsibility for tourism and tourism alone will have a seat at cabinet. The industry is preparing to throw the confetti and uncork the champagne.

With the rumours getting stronger - the Spanish travel press are spreading them, as are mainstream newspapers - so the speculation starts. Who might be this tourism minister? It's a bit like guessing who'll be the new England football manager. Pundits are offering their thoughts, and one name which is towards the top of the list is that of Mallorcan Simón Pedro Barceló, co-president of the Barceló hotel group, an independent director on the board of airports authority Aena, and someone with very close links to the PP.

So, not only might there well be a tourism minister, he might also be Mallorcan. As a hotelier, that would doubtless put a few political noses out of joint here. But whoever it might be, a minister is long overdue.

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