Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Taking Refuge In The Ecotax

It was one of those embarrassing occurrences. It was August and talk of saturation, principally courtesy of Airbnb, was incessant. The rentals' legislation had, though, finally been brought into force. Airbnb would be brought into line.

The Council of Mallorca may not have been the body which introduced the legislation, but as we know it is fundamental to its implementation. Its political make-up mirrors that of the government. For the Council as well as the government, Airbnb is thus akin to the devil's work. So, when the Council discovered that Can Boi was being advertised on Airbnb, you can imagine that the Council corridors were full of fury that went beyond a mere breach of advertising rules.

Can Boi, if you are unaware, is one of the Council's Tramuntana refuges. These are essentially like hostels and they are typically pretty basic. Situated in Deià, Can Boi is on the GR221 dry-stone route. As with other refuges along the route, it isn't particularly well patronised in high summer. Publicising itself might therefore be considered to make some business sense. Well, it can publicise itself, but not on Airbnb.

While the Council owns these refuges, a couple are operated - as is the case with Can Boi - by a concessionaire. There are certain rules that need to be observed in the contracts, and the Airbnb incident points to limitations imposed on running them in a true business sense. And Heaven knows, when the Pont Romà refuge in Pollensa was being put up for "privatisation", there was a right old ballyhoo from local businesses which reckoned this would represent unfair competition, though for the life of me I couldn't understand how - a maximum of 38 people with prices pegged at low rates, it made little difference whether the Council or someone else was in charge.

The Council had pursued this limited move towards privatisation on account of the vast debt that the refuges had run up - at least 600,000 euros back in 2011. Five years ago when I considered the role of the refuges on the dry-stone route, I concluded that there should be more of them. Notwithstanding the costs of running them, I came to this conclusion purely because the refuges appeal to a particular type of minority tourism. Five years ago one assessed such an issue in straightforward tourism terms. Five years on and there is a political expedient which supersedes purely tourism considerations.

The Council and the regional government would of course deny this. As part of the "Better in Winter" campaign, the more refuges the merrier. Yes, the refuges are for tourists, but these tourists are now politicised because of the politics of tourism policies. Refuges are thus "a good thing", with no questions asked.

Once upon a time, as in 2011, the Council was shelling out upwards of three million euros in investing in its refuges. There is now an alternative source of investment - the tourist tax. Consequently, there are to be new refuges on the Galatzó finca in Calvia and in Betlem (Arta). One wouldn't be surprised if others were to pop up, thanks to the tourist tax.

The Council is not the sole provider of refuges. The Ibanat agency, part of the environment ministry, has its own - thirteen of them. Seven of these are also in the Tramuntana. The others are, for example, in the Llevant Nature Park, and the Betlem refuge is on the Es Canons finca, which is to become part of an expanded park, courtesy of 4.7 million euros of tax revenue.

In principle, this may all sound reasonable enough, but how many refuges are needed? The number of guests is generally on the rise, but to give an idea of use, in 2012 there were just over 18,000 for the entire year in the five (as were) Council refuges in the Tramuntana; there are now eight of them.

In addition to the investment, there are the running costs. The annual cost of maintenance for the five refuges in 2012 was over one million euros. There are now more of them, with others about to be added. But nowhere, it seems, is anyone actually querying the necessity of increasing the number. The government's got the money, so the government will spend on refuges because they conform to a political vision of tourism that remains predicated on a shaky foundation - all those extra tourists in winter. And in any event, do these extra tourists, even hikers, necessarily want to stay in a refuge? Wouldn't encouraging them to stay in hotels in fact make greater economic sense?

Four years ago the Council was seeking ways of boosting occupancy of the refuges in summer. Now, because of tourism policies, one fancies that it won't be, further drawing into question the viability of an expanded network. And the refuges, even if they wanted more summer business, most certainly cannot resort to using Airbnb.

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