Monday, December 18, 2017

The Biel Barceló Legacy

Biel Barceló was in the grand tradition of Balearic tourism ministers. He resigned. Yet resignation after only two and a half years in office can still bring with it a legacy. It may not be a fully fulfilled legacy, but it can be legacy nonetheless. Carlos Delgado bequeathed the "ley Delgado", the 2012 tourism law that Barceló spent much of his period as minister attempting to alter. In the process, he will go down in the annals as the minister who introduced the second ecotax and who incurred the wrath of holiday rentals liberals. In Balearic tourism ministry terms, he achieved much, even if there will be many who would prefer that he had departed without having left any legacy at all.

Tourism was always going to be his job to have, once Més, PSOE and Podemos had struck their agreement for government in 2015. Onto tourism he grafted his pet topic of innovation and research, and thus formed a ministry in his own image, and that of Més. The opprobrium directed towards Barceló regarding rentals and the tax is not justifiable in personal terms. If one cares to look at the Més manifesto for 2015, one will discover that both were on the agenda, although both - it is probably fair to say - have developed in ways that hadn't necessarily been envisaged.

For a doubling of the tourist tax, one really has to blame Podemos and the gun it held to the government over the budget. Barceló had, in the months after the tax had been introduced, been distinctly equivocal on whether it would go up. There was no room for equivocation when the barrels of Podemos were pointed.

As for the rentals legislation, I maintain that this took a course that hadn't been foreseen. Més were committed to legislate, but this was because the Partido Popular had failed to do so. PSOE agreed with them. There had to be new regulations, and these would have been drafted in a different fashion had it not been for the sudden explosion caused by the perfect storm of Airbnb (and others) and the massive demand for the Balearics that stemmed from Mediterranean geopolitics. Contrary to what anyone might believe, Més would have adopted a more relaxed attitude to regulation, if only because the PP had been illiberal.

That the legislation has become a complete dog's breakfast doesn't reflect well on Barceló, but again he can't be singled out. Podemos caused their own havoc, and the involvement of the Council of Mallorca and its incomprehensible zoning has just added to it. Fundamentally, however, Barceló was right. Things had got totally out of hand. Order had to be established, and the Balearics have been no different to many other places where Airbnb has completely disrupted the residential market.

He got things wrong with a failure to make immediate and forceful condemnations of bouts of anti-tourism and with going on about saturation. Both failures merely fed a growing antagonism towards tourism, but a response - setting limits on the number of tourists - was hardly the radical proposal that has been portrayed. Limits have been on the table for years; even the PP (Delgado) alluded to the potential need.

A further response is the frankly laughable notion that tourists will opt to come to the Balearics at times other than the summer. The Better in Winter campaign suffers because of its very slogan, as it begs the alternative - worse in summer. But any gains that might be claimed because of this campaign are questionable. A lengthening of the season has occurred because of increased demand resulting from the geopolitics, because of the ever greater momentum in niche products such as cycling and hiking that owes virtually nothing to government policy, and simply because of a greatly improved economic climate.

The only body which can genuinely be held up as having made a difference is the Palma 365 Foundation, of which the government isn't a part. And it most certainly has benefited from good press. That famous article about Palma in The Sunday Times was by a journalist who is well known to the Mallorca Tourist Board, a private organisation that promotes the island; so not, therefore, the government.

That article just goes to highlight an area where Barceló failed, just as ministers have in the past. Communications are hopeless. There is still no coherent approach to social media. The website for explaining how the tourist tax is spent was and is an utter embarrassment, and when the tax was introduced, he insisted on references to small percentages to be added to the overall cost of the holiday rather than appealing to the tourist's heart.

Has he left a legacy? We may start to get an idea next year, as his period as minister may have been when the mass in mass tourism was put into reverse. He hands over to Bel Busquets, a secondary school teacher by profession.

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