Friday, July 28, 2017

The Annual Excursions' Lament

In the early 1930s, the Fomento del Turismo (Mallorca Tourist Board) organised island coach excursions which left its central Palma building at a quarter past nine in the morning. For eleven pesetas, tourists could choose from a small selection of excursions: one to Valldemossa, Miramar, Deya, Soller and Puerto Soller; another to the Caves of Drach (with concert) and the Caves of Ham; or there was Pollensa, Puerto Pollensa and Formentor. For an extra two pesetas, there was a trip to the Caves of Arta and Cala Ratjada.

One can only imagine the somewhat perilous nature of excursions using coaches of their time on mountain roads. At least they were more comfortable than stage coaches; once upon a time, they were all there were. Another positive would have been the absence of traffic. No hacking along twisty, narrow roads only to be confronted by a pelaton of cyclists and a queue of hire cars. The primitive coach operators, one presumes, derived profit from these excursions. They certainly wouldn't have had to contend with town hall bylaws on parking. There wasn't a trip to Sa Calobra, but nowadays the operators have to reserve parking in advance or incur a whopping charge, courtesy of Escorca town hall.

The nature of excursions has of course changed. The Tramuntana mountains, for instance, give rise to the island tour, one that combines coach with boat, tram and train in taking in Sa Calobra and Soller. Essentially, though, some of the excursions are much as they were in the 1930s. Some forty years later, the ladies of Coronation Street went to Valldemossa, though it required Hilda to remember the name of the place when Emily was writing a postcard to send back home. The current-day Valldemossa trip has run into similar issues as with Sa Calobra: saturation by coach, saturation by tourist. How very different things are in this regard from the 1930s.

The range of excursions available today includes these old faithfuls. And rightly so. Nevertheless, the Balearic association of travel agents suggests that new life needs to be bred into excursions. Innovation is required. The sale of excursions (by travel agents) has apparently slumped by 50% since 2011.

One hears this lament on a regular basis. A year ago, the association said that there had been a 40% decline over four years: 800,000 lost customers. Only one in three of all tourists was booking an excursion. This said, the association indicated that certain excursions were still holding up. They included the Caves of Drach, the island tour and Valldemossa: the old faithfuls.

A year on, and the percentage has risen by ten points: there's simple maths for you. Now, though, the emphasis has shifted towards a need for excursion innovation, while familiar reasons for the decline in the sale of excursions are still being cited: lower tourist spending power and the proliferation of hire cars.

Innovation may indeed be a factor, though one can point to certain operators who are innovative not just in their products but also in their selling, with a strong emphasis on social media. As with any business, innovation should be a given, but sadly it would seem as if it isn't.

There are of course the other factors. For some years, all-inclusives have been the principal target of the agents and of the attractions' association. The number of all-inclusive places, which rose during the crisis, has dented business. But this number is now falling as hotels and tour operators themselves adopt new products. All-inclusive remains a factor, but does it explain what the travel agents say is the unexpectedly high fall in demand this year? Some agents are reporting falls in sales of 20%.

An excursion, as with mostly all tourist spending, is a discretionary purchase. Holidaymakers' budgets will determine the purchase (or not). Add new costs to this budget and there is a further element in guiding the purchasing process. Is it fanciful, therefore, to suggest that the tourist tax is influencing the sale of excursions?

Lamenting lower tourist spending power flies in the face of what the Egatur surveys of spending suggest is the case: spending is going up. But who really believes this? The statistics are, by the very nature of how they are arrived at, not an accurate reflection of in-resort realities. And these realities include the cost of the holiday itself, which has gone up and which - as one can already see with prices being quoted for 2018 - will be going up further. It's not that there is a "cheap" form of tourism; it's that holidaymakers have forked out so much before they even get here. 

Expect, therefore, to hear more lamenting from the travel agents next year. Oh how they must wish things were like the 1930s, when the only tourists were wealthy and unconcerned by prices. Eleven pesetas, with hindsight, sounds very cheap.

*The video is a short one (sixty seconds) of Valldemossa in 1930.

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