Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Spain Is Not Croatia: Tourism ministers

Tourism is an odd thing politically. Important as it is, it isn't generally granted high political status. In the European Union, there appear to be only three countries which have a minister devoted to tourism alone: Bulgaria, Croatia and Malta. The latter of these is never mentioned in discussions of Mallorca and Spain's competitor destinations, but the first two most certainly are. The advances of their sun-and-beach tourism have been plotted strategically around the cabinet table.

There are other countries which relegate tourism to a lowly political level. The UK is one of them. It has a parliamentary under secretary of state for sport, tourism and heritage: Tracey Crouch, whose CV suggests that her knowledge of tourism is significantly less than her knowledge of football.

For the most part, EU nations place tourism within ministries which have cabinet status. In Germany, as an example, tourism comes under the ministry of economic affairs and energy. The French find a place for tourism in the foreign ministry. The nation which receives more tourists than anywhere else - France - doesn't have a dedicated minister.

Spain doesn't have a specific minister either. There was hope, prior to the announcement of the new cabinet, that it would. In the end Mariano Rajoy lumped tourism together with energy (as had previously been the case) and with the "digital agenda". In so doing, Rajoy failed to remove the potential conflict of responsibilities which dogged José Manuel Soria and that caused the disputes with the Balearics over oil. The apparent need for tourism to co-exist with energy is a source of bafflement. There again, what's good for the Germans ... even if tourism in that country is delegated downwards from the cabinet table. It could be more baffling: in Luxembourg, hive of tourist activity as it is, they have a minister for tourism, housing and, bizarrely enough, the middle classes.

At least tourism is directly represented at the Spanish cabinet table, when it is not in the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Slovakia and Slovenia.

EU countries clearly have varying degrees of economic dependence on tourism. In Spain, it contributes 11.5% of GDP, a percentage that rises dramatically according to region, such as the Balearics. This is greater than in France, where it is just under 10%, but well below Croatia with 20%. In a Daily Telegraph list of the twenty countries on the planet most reliant on tourism, Croatia sits at number eighteen. Malta is five places above it. No wonder they have dedicated tourism ministers.

Of the major economic powers in the EU, Spain's dependence on tourism is the greatest; Italy lags behind by around one per cent. Although high, this dependence is not as fundamental as in, say, Croatia. But GDP figures can explain only so much. There is the indirect contribution as well and perhaps just as importantly there is the social and psychological contribution. While miscreants are going around daubing anti-tourist slogans - and not just in Palma - no one can (or should) forget that it was tourism above all that turned Spain into a major economic power. It is in the national psyche, therefore, which maybe helps to explain the degree to which a ministerial appointment has been discussed. The column inches have been numerous, the analysis of the new minister has been intense. The debate as to the need to a dedicated tourism minister continues, though some are counting blessings that Rajoy didn't go back to how things were for a time under Zapatero when there was no cabinet representation.

Yet it remains something of a mystery as to why tourism doesn't enjoy greater status in political affairs. Alvaro Nadal, the new minister, has said that "tourism is our jewel in the crown that has a snowball effect on the whole of the economy". Quite so; 11.5% of GDP does indeed explain only so much. Moreover, as Rajoy sought to bring Spain out of economic crisis, he repeatedly referred - quite correctly - to tourism being the motor of the economy. Its reward is to be allied to the nation's digitalisation and energy needs. It doesn't appear to make sense.

Nadal has also said that there is a need for tourism to be given "a strong impulse to reinvent itself". What does he mean by this? Is the sector not already heading in new directions of diversification and greater quality? In the Balearics, we'd like to believe so. But then, the Balearics are not Extremadura or Castile and Leon.

Spain's tourism diversity is vast. And herein perhaps lies the rub. While Balearic tourism interests must at all costs be defended, these interests are not as reliant on a national minister as is the case with other regions. The islands arguably have far more need of a national energy minister, so long as he doesn't want to start drilling for oil.

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