Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Tourism Debate Fifty Years Ago

Fifty years ago this coming Saturday, Maria Steiner, a Swiss citizen, received a pleasant surprise. She and her husband Roger were to be treated to a fortnight's free holiday in Palma. They already were on holiday, or were about to be, so the free fortnight was presumably to be arranged some time in the future. The benefactor was the Fomento del Turismo, the Mallorca Tourist Board. It was represented at Palma airport on 24 June, 1967. Maria was the one millionth tourist to have arrived at the airport that year.

Included in the report of this was a brief mention of the fact that the one million mark had been attained three days earlier than in 1966. There was no comment on it, but it was - one guesses - something in which a certain pride could be taken (probably). It was indicative of the advance of tourism, and one million tourists were worthy of celebrating. 

Some two months later, there was another report. It said that there had been sixty thousand passengers - arrivals and departures - in two days at the airport. This was a "bonita" figure, despite the fact that tourist Mallorca was "invaded". A distinction was drawn between the resorts and the unknown corners of the island, which most certainly had not been invaded.

Today, the numbers are of course vastly greater. A celebration of the multi-millionth tourist arrival is more likely to involve the payment of an airline ticket home, a flight to be taken immediately. Invasion, as we know, is now saturation and "massification". Unknown corners of the island are shared on social media, while environmentalists and politicians get into almighty flaps about the "collapse" of beaches, of roads, of parking areas, of services, of resources.

The invasion of 1967 didn't carry a negative connotation; in the report cited, that is. But fifty years ago, there were already rumblings about the impact of tourism. The press and individuals were not totally cowed by censorship. They were allowed to be critical so long as this didn't cross the line and become an outright assault on the regime. One critic was Josep Alfonso Villanueva. He was to become a member of the Balearic parliament with PSOE when democratic government was created in 1983. In the mid-60s, he pursued a career as an economist and in 1969 wrote a socioeconomic analysis of the hotel and hostelry industries. A conclusion he was drawing at that time was that there should be a limit to the number of tourists.

Another article from fifty years ago began by saying that the tourism revolution was, in spiritual terms, negative. There was a need for there to be a balance or otherwise the new society being created would respond only to materialistic motives. There was a further need for there to be a university, the principal purpose of which should be to consider the sociological impact of this still new industry: the University of the Balearic Islands wasn't to be founded until the end of the 1970s.

The university, it was argued, should assist in guaranteeing social equilibrium, with culture as well as socioeconomics its chief concerns. What is striking about this is that politicians weren't being called on to attend to these matters. That was because, in effect, there weren't any, other than Francoist appointees. Otherwise, there were concerns being voiced about water resources. There was no plan for proper exploitation of water. Moreover, there was criticism of the wholly imbalanced development of tourism. Coming back to the unknown corners, there were any number of them without tourists, without bars, without homes. Tourism was being pressed into confined and specific areas; the economic benefit of tourism was not being distributed. In Palma alone, more than 50% of Majorca's tourism capacity was to be found.

So what you had fifty years ago was something of a divide of opinion. On the one hand there was talk of capping the number of tourists. This was because of the harm being caused to traditional industries - agriculture still accounted for around a quarter of employment but this was falling rapidly - and the harm to the social fabric. Resources were an issue, as was infrastructure: roads in particular. On the other hand there was acknowledgement of tourism's benefits, tempered by economic wealth not being evenly spread.

Lurking behind these acceptable statements in the press was a very much more critical movement. It was concerned primarily with the cultural impact but it found very little public expression because of the Catalan overtones. As for the environment, it was to be six years before GOB was founded. And it was originally concerned only with birdlife.

The way in which issues are nowadays expressed is very different. But the themes aren't. Tourist limits, resources, impact on society, unequal wealth creation from tourism. It was all there half a century ago. They just had to be careful how they spoke about it.

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