Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tourism Ministry's Work: Good Or Bad?

How does one assess the performance of a government minister? Who does the assessment? What is it that is being assessed?

I'll leave these questions hanging, so that you can mull them over while considering that the tourism minister Biel Barceló has said that he has been doing "good work" at the ministry. Another question is raised therefore. What constitutes "good"?

He was saying this while at the same time deflecting typical reproaches from the Partido Popular - these ones to do with the Més contracts affair and the PP's consequent demand that he resigns. To define how well he and the ministry have been doing, he drew attention to having gone beyond the "agreements for change" with Podemos (which underpin the current government). These agreements hadn't included establishing a limit on the number of tourist places or having a moratorium on new holiday rental licences (until the zoning for rentals has been determined).

So, it would seem that the Barceló self-appraisal of achievement hangs on these policies, both of which might be characterised as being de-tourism (and he didn't specifically mention the tourist tax). It is an oddity of government - this one anyway - that its ministerial aims include more medical professionals (especially if they speak Catalan), more jobs, more teachers, more finance, and more innovation and research (which is also a Barceló responsibility). Tourism, on the other hand, appears to be about less, notwithstanding the more tourists that the government believes it can shunt from the summer to the winter. Only the tourist tax is a clear policy for more.

The Balearic approach is really what some commentators mean when criticising radical tourism politics in Spain; Barcelona falls into the same bag. One recent article spoke about a "totalitarian" attitude. It highlighted in particular the attack on Gabriel Escarrer Julià of Meliá after he had taken issue with the tourist tax during his speech at the opening of the Palacio de Congresos. Seeking to deny Escarrer the freedom of speech was an example of this totalitarianism. I don't think it was. The row was completely pointless and the freedom of speech angle was frankly blown out of all proportion. If this was radical tourism politics displaying totalitarianism, then a better example was needed.

Some of what this government has been doing in terms of tourism is justified. The tourist tax doubling no, but then I disagree with the tax anyway, especially the way in which it has been manipulated to disguise a general revenue-raising purpose. The rentals issue has not been that well handled - it's too complicated and it is too restrictive - but the government was left with little choice. And it isn't the only government which has been faced with such a dilemma and felt the need to legislate. As a hypothesis, I wonder what the Partido Popular would have done had it been in government. Given its track record on rentals, it's highly unlikely that it would have been any more liberal. And despite what the PP say now, Carlos Delgado, when he first became tourism minister in 2011, did speak about the possible need to reduce numbers and he was mainly referring to hotels. Limits can make sense.

So are Barceló and the government particularly radical? I'm not sure that they are. They do admittedly have Podemos firmly in a de-tourism camp as well as some members of Més, but overall ... ? The problem perhaps is one of perception and one of tone. We can be sure that had it been the PP they wouldn't have appeared to equivocate over condemnation of anti-tourism sentiment.

But to come back to the question of who does the assessing, ultimately it's the voters. And surveys suggest that on issues such as the tourist tax and limits there is support. Good? Bad? I leave it you to decide.

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