Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Modest Benefits Of Saturation

Saturation. The word first really became popularised in tourist terms two summers ago. It was applied primarily to Palma and in particular to the impact of cruise ships and of cloudy days, when hire cars bring masses of additional tourists to the city and clog the roads. Since then, it has become all-embracing, with Airbnb and its like having been fingered along with Aena and airport traffic. Mallorca is saturated.

The simple view is that this is purely a phenomenon of high summer. This is too simple. Saturation, as in far more tourists than have been typical in the past, occurs from the springtime. This earlier "invasion" should be perceived as a positive. By and large it is. But the elevated numbers of people, the increased volume of traffic (hire cars, transfer coaches, delivery trucks), the additional pressures on beaches and resources, the distortion of the market for accommodation, the higher level of airport movement create their perceptions. Whatever the arguments about tourism quality versus tourism quantity, the perception is of vastly greater quantity, and the perception is not wrong.

In order to gain an appreciation of this perception, there are the surveys. These attempt to give scientific insight to saturation. While the surveys, conducted in accordance with accepted standards for accuracy, reveal their conclusions, they are subject to a further pressure caused by saturation: the degree to which the discussion of saturation is in the public domain and the propaganda that comes with it. If you ask people for their perceptions, then they will answer with guidance that influences these perceptions.

The latest survey by the Gadeso researchers discovers, inter alia, that 80% of Balearic citizens perceive that the islands are saturated. This sensation is felt fractionally more in Mallorca and Formentera than in Menorca and Ibiza. There is a 75% or above perception when it comes to main roads (including motorways), to excessive use of resources, and to beaches and their access.

The survey doesn't compare like with like. In September last year, Gadeso found that 80% of citizens had perceived increased saturation. The current survey doesn't ask about an increase. Saturation has, if you like, become an embedded reality. Or this is one way of interpreting the results.

Another survey by Gadeso, this one conducted in June, asked tourists in Mallorca what they thought about services, infrastructure and so on. The results of tourist surveys tend not to show great variance from one to another, but there were a couple of indicators worthy of mention. Compared with the previous year, access to beaches had slumped from 4.7 to 4.1. Asked about "massification" (which can be used interchangeably with saturation), this was rated more negatively than in 2016 when there had been greater negativity than in 2015. The increase in negativity was, however, up by three times.

Bear in mind that this was in June, so not the height of the summer. Yet here were tourists themselves complaining about a sense of increased saturation and of overcrowding at beaches. In addition, they rated cleanliness notably lower, and this, one has to conclude, may well owe at least something to there being more people.

Returning to the latest survey, one of the more extraordinary findings relates to the strengths of tourism. Under a half of those surveyed (48%) agreed that it is the basis of well-being. It is difficult to discern of this was well-being in general or at an individual level. But either way, for the islands' principal industry to be considered in such a way seems almost bizarre. Or does this finding in fact reveal an ambivalence towards tourism? People aren't sure whether it's positive or negative.

And from a negative point of view, further findings on jobs and incomes speak volumes. A mere 22% said that tourism generates jobs. Only 20% felt that incomes will rise this year. More than 80% believed that there is excessive dependence upon tourism.

The tourism-employment equation is fundamental to all the discussion of tourism quality versus quantity. While the government seeks to pursue policies designed to alleviate saturation and its consequences for the environment, roads, services and the rest, it speaks in only vague terms about redistribution of wealth, raising the quality of employment and economic diversification. The government, in truth, is trapped in the same corner that others have been. It fully understands that there is far too much reliance on tourism, but addressing this reliance in any meaningful way is a challenge without obvious solutions.

Saturation won't necessarily persist if there is a correction in Mediterranean tourism and geopolitics cease to be less influential than they have been. Then what? Where the citizens in the survey are concerned, saturation has been only modestly beneficial. The government can talk all it likes about generating quality employment. But what about employment, period?

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