Thursday, May 11, 2017

Blue Flags: Time Has Caught Up

Here we go again. The annual Blue Flags' song and dance. It's a story which is annually destined to occupy the front pages. That's only natural. For a society and an economy with the beach so close to their hearts, it's bound to, though once upon a time of course, there was no story. That was because there was no Blue Flag.

Matilde Asián, the national secretary-of-state for tourism, was able to glow in the spotlight of the number of flags fluttering on Spain's beaches. The Blue Flag, at the time of its inception thirty years ago, was ahead of its time. She was right. In the 1980s the world had still to wake up to the imperative of water quality. The world was still comparatively lazy and indifferent when it came to matters of the environment. The Blue Flag was a fantastic initiative.

Biel Barceló, the Balearic tourism minister, has said of the Blue Flag that tourists don't particularly value it. When he came out with this last year, he plunged the government into an argument with ADEAC, the organising association in Spain. There was talk of its legal people getting involved. The government was casting doubt on the Blue Flag and causing damage to it.

My reaction to Barceló was to thank God that someone had officially raised doubts about the Blue Flag. Let me be clear, the initiative does do an immense amount of good, but for a number of years it had been coming clear - to me at any rate - that it had gone way beyond its original purpose (that of water quality). It had started to carve out its own empire, adding ever more criteria and requirements.

At the same time, the general beachgoing public was far less indifferent to quality than it might once have been. Its environmental antennae had been alerted by the Blue Flag in its early years, but it was becoming ever more demanding, regardless of the Blue Flag. Sanitary conditions, good services, rescue facilities, etc., etc.: the public demanded them and expected them. Legislation, local regulations made sure that these demands and expectations were met. The Blue Flag was incidental.

Barceló said that tourists don't value the Blue Flag. In some parts of the globe, I suspect they do. That's because of parts of the world that have been playing catch-up on an environmental front. In the Balearics and Spain there have been laws both domestically and European which over many years have rectified many of the wrongs and which have made Spain a world leader for tourism. Yes, we hear about pollution in the Med, we do hear about the plastic that is washed up, we do hear about the occasional spillages of faecal water or about garbage floating. There isn't perfection, but where there is evidence, something is usually done, and if it isn't there is someone to take a photo or video and post it on social networks and scare local authorities into action.

What do tourists (or residents, come to that) take notice of? A Blue Flag? Be honest, do you? Are you in fact bothered about the various certifications for quality that numerous beaches have in Mallorca? Maybe you are. For the most part, I don't think people pay a great deal of attention. That's because quality is now taken as a given, and it comes about for all sorts of reasons, and generally speaking it is guaranteed, notwithstanding the occasional unfortunate incident. Barceló was right.

Far more notice is taken of what is knocking around the internet. If TripAdvisor reveals that such and such a beach is wonderful, then people will accept that it is. Recommendations are vastly more powerful than a flag. Likewise, if there are bad reviews, then a beach (and resort) may well suffer.

Playa de Muro's beach regularly attracts accolades. They come because of the excellent quality that is guaranteed in different ways. Yes, there is a Blue Flag but it is only one of several quality certifications. That it has been identified and praised by the Blue Flag organisers for its rescue service is even more reason for it to receive accolades. But the outstanding service which exists there is because the town hall (and business) have been so determined to push ever more the quality of the beach. The Blue Flag is nice but it isn't central and nor did it have anything to do with the creation of the medical emergency rapid response team at the beach.

The Blue Flags are an annual event. They are like the Oscars or Baftas without the gowns and bow ties. Or this at least is how they might wish to be perceived. The fact is that the annual ceremony passes many by, such as the municipalities who can't be bothered with the process. They have other means of demonstrating quality. Ahead of its time. Time has caught up.

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