Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Living And Dying From Tourism

Here's a stat for you. Over the past ten years the number of tourists per annum in Mallorca has risen from just shy of six million to just shy of eleven million. Not quite a 100% increase, it's still one hell of an increase.

Such an abundance of tourists should have everyone jumping for joy. But not everyone is. Some are staring at beaches of the island, at roads, at treatment plants. Their expressions are ones of pain. How has it come to this? We know how. We know why. Mediterranean geopolitics and the advance of Airbnb (and others). We know the reasons. Nevertheless, an additional five million tourists in the space of a decade, 500k more each year: this is a massive increase.

It might be thought that the increase has been more concentrated than this. Go back ten years and the world was at the point of throwing itself off financial towers. But the crash didn't create a tourism wreck. It didn't enable tourism to truly set sail with a fair wind behind it, but nor was tourism becalmed. The numbers grew and then suddenly they exploded. There was the collision of collaborative economy internet portals, the firing of a terrorist's gun, and the sound of cash tills being reactivated through recovery. For some, this caused the perfect storm. For others, it was imperfect. Storm it was, though. And with storms come damage.

Crisis begat austerity. While recovery is all around, it is easy to forget that Spain and Mallorca are still labouring in the sludgy sand of parsimony. It took a constitutional manoeuvre and an alliance of political foes - the Partido Popular and PSOE - to enshrine austerity into statute. It remains there. It is yielding slightly, but it keeps well hidden the key to the giant padlock that guards and seals the public spending treasure chest.

Town halls are at least to now be allowed to spend some of the vast surpluses they have been attaining because of the law on financial stability. But they are still subject to spending restrictions on personnel. As can be observed in Capdepera and Muro, which are not the only examples, town halls are severely restricted in terms of police recruitment and police pay. The municipal security force is only one component of the constraint.

So, coincidental with this major increase in tourist numbers has been a block on the wherewithal to deal with them. Policing, or its absence, should have us all alarmed. But the strains are clear elsewhere: cleaning, water, sewage, health service, traffic. Have public services advanced in line with the five million or so tourists advance? They have not.

Should government, Madrid in particular, shoulder the blame? Partly, it should, but then what other options did Madrid really have? But demanding that ever greater financial resources are made available obscures the real issue. The rate of growth in tourism is unsustainable. An island such as Mallorca cannot deal with it. While infrastructure can be updated, there is only so much that the general environment can absorb. It is true that no one ever places precise figures on the island's load capacities, but intuitively as well as financially, there is broad agreement that there is a finite point. And it may well have been reached.

It is no longer just the environmentalists who argue the case. Divisions of the state recognise it, even the ministry for development. While it keeps a weather eye on Aena with its ambitions for increased flights (and by and large seems prepared to permit them), it has its other duties. It is the development ministry that oversees transport in general, land in general. It can talk to the traffic directorate or to the Bank of Spain. The opinions are the same. Not sustainable.

Given this general agreement, there is a need for different branches of government (and business and environmentalists) to come together. But the regional and national governments, thanks to political differences, butt heads rather than make accords. Mallorca, hamstrung by austerity and a disadvantageous financing system, is entitled to expect something more in return for all the wealth that the additional five million is generating. But I say again, financing isn't the real issue.

The regional government, via its legislation, is seeking to spread the load of tourism. It is looking to the island's interior to take some of the strain that has been created by the increased numbers. While this can be positive for some towns, it isn't entirely. Selva is one place where the infrastructure is creaking. Buger, tiny Buger, has the highest density of tourist places on the island relative to population. It doesn't have the ability to serve them.

The oft-quoted slogan is that Mallorca lives from tourism. It does indeed. But an impression given is of an island slowly dying from its own lifeblood.

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