Friday, December 30, 2016

Saturation, Sustainability And Stability: Mallorca's Tourism 2016

It was the 3S year. Not sun, sea and sand (substitute sex for the latter if you prefer) but saturation, sustainability and stability. Mallorca had stability by the safety and security load, plus - more or less - political stability. Geopolitics, a word that was being rammed down our throats, were at play in creating the opposite in different parts of the Med: the instability of others was Mallorca's good fortune. Until, that is, it came to saturation. Tourist numbers were greater than ever. And they were everywhere. Clogging up beaches, clogging up town centres (well, one, i.e. Palma, but only now and then), clogging up the port in Palma on account of the leviathans of the sea colliding on the same days, clogging up roads with the thousands more hire cars that had been diverted from Turkish ports, clogging up private apartments and firing off messages of gratitude to Airbnb. Bloody tourists.

It may have only been a couple of cranks who sprayed their messages on walls of Palma's old town, but their sentiments were far more widely held. Regardless of whether politicians attempted to either downplay or make hay with the slogans, the publicity had won. Saturation and its negative effects were here to stay. Or for at least as long as geopolitics are active in the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa.

It wasn't as if we hadn't been here before. Few mentioned the fact that there had been similar murmurings of discontent at the turn of the millennium, despite Mallorca experiencing something of a crisis because of competition from destinations then unaffected by geopolitics. The response had been a campaign for sustainability - yes, they've been talking about it for that long - and a new tax. The ecotax was introduced in 2002 and then un-introduced eighteen months later. Politics, not of a geo nature but of a typically Balearic style, saw to it that the ecotax was ejected with force and catapulted into the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean, never to darken a hotel reception again. Until 1 July, 2016.

While former tourism minister Celesti Alomar had believed (hoped) that the ecotax would lead to a cut in tourist numbers, the current minister, Biel Barceló, didn't seem to suggest that the new tourist tax was a means of limiting numbers. Not to begin with anyway. Although he remained somewhat equivocal on the tax and limits relationship, others were not for equivocating. Podemos and fellow travellers in Barceló's Més party were all for putting it up in 2017 in order to keep the numbers down. Més and numerous members of Podemos signed up to the campaign "Sense límits no hi ha futur".

The politics of the tourist tax were in themselves curious. Més in their former solo guise as the PSM had been against the ecotax in 2002 (believe it or not, they had feared it would harm tourist numbers). It had been PSOE - Alomar especially - who had been the evangelists and advocates. Although PSOE in their current form have never admitted that they would have rather the tourist tax had been given a wide berth, they were badgered into it by Més and Podemos.

And once it was on the parliamentary agenda, it caused all sorts of disagreement, not least with regard to how the revenue was to be spent. There was, for example, the notion (proposed by Toni Reus of Més) of some of the revenue going towards old folks' homes. The scrapping was such that an unidentified member of Podemos entertainingly remarked that during one particularly heated discussion "we were screaming like we were kids in primary school".

Paramount, though, was our old friend sustainability, so much so that the tax was officially dubbed the sustainable tourism tax. It duly arrived in time for the high season, and fears that outraged tourists might be dragged off to the cells for refusing to part with payment were to prove to have been unfounded.

It is perhaps instructive to look back at quotes that I used in reviewing the 2015 tourism year. The president of the Mallorca Hoteliers Federation, the ubiquitous Inma Benito, had called it a bad measure that "will cause the loss of millions in 2016". Hans Müller of Thomas Cook believed that it "could suddenly cost us everything that has been gained over the past four years". As things turned out, the hoteliers and the tour operators were grateful for the geopolitics as far as Mallorca was concerned; tour operators otherwise experienced losses, especially in Turkey.

With limits and saturation very much on the agenda, Barceló introduced the draft for the holiday rentals legislation. This will be one of the big issues for 2017, and it will be a contentious issue as well. The divvying up of the 43,000 places according to nine zones in Mallorca, to say nothing of the other three islands, will be a wonder to behold, while the lawyers will already be champing at the bit. On all-inclusives, if the tourism ministry is true to its word and gets tough with offer that is not registered, then good on the ministry.

2016 will otherwise be remembered for the collapse of Low Cost Holidays and so for the job losses. It was a case study of crap cash-flow management allied to inadequate regulatory control in the Balearics: the tourism ministry was left to squirm and cite European bonds as its fallback position for holidaymakers whose holidays were costing them double. There were also the losses that Vueling was consistently making: it kept on having to cancel flights. The airports authority Aena hasn't explained if the record numbers at Palma airport took account of the cancellations.

And what of losses in 2017? Brexit had no impact this year, and in truth there had been little justification for thinking that it would have. We're told that bookings from the UK are buoyant for next year, the bigger fear being lower spend. But as no one believes tourist spending statistics anyway, how will we able to tell?

So we look forward to the new year, one during which we will revisit - time and time again - the same themes. 2017 will be 3S year Mark II.

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