Saturday, January 20, 2018

Gloves Off: Rentals And Tax Handbagging

When the tourism industry troops off for its away days in London for the World Travel Market, an impression given is that the industry doesn't air its dirty linen. The impression is of course a false one. The hoteliers and tour operators are happy with the tourist tax? They most certainly are not, though they tend to confine their criticisms to places behind closed doors. At the last fair, however, they came out with the line about one million tourists being lost.

A big difference between, say, the London fair and the one held in Madrid is that the latter is, fairly obviously, a Spanish affair. Sure, there is a big international element, but Madrid provides way more of an assessment of Spanish issues than London, Berlin and others ever will do. As such, therefore, London is not truly representative, and by and large the whole of the industry prefers to keep it that way. A full-on public barney doesn't look good and only creates negative publicity.

London also doesn't have a pre-fair conference quite like Madrid has with the Exceltur forum. Organised on behalf of the tourism industry elite (which Exceltur represents), it offers a stage for what one might describe as full and frank discussions. The Spanish media is engrossed, but other media pay scant attention. It is only Madrid, after all, and they all speak Spanish, unless someone attempts to sneak in some Catalan.

This is to demean the importance of Fitur. Much though London or Berlin might consider themselves to be the centres of the European tourism universe, Madrid is the real centre. The UN's World Tourism Organisation is based in Madrid, the capital of the country that receives more tourists than any other on the planet with the exception of France. Despite the Catalonia effect, Spain leapt above the US last year. The Trump effect, the negative Trump effect, was a key reason why.

The Spanish tourism universe doesn't of course solely revolve around the Balearics, but given that the islands account for more than 15% of the annual foreign tourist total, then what happens in the Balearics matters. The islands are the tourism arguments in relatively large microcosm, and these Balearic arguments tend to be heard more loudly than those of any other region of Spain. They were being given full voice at the Exceltur conference. The foreign media and indeed foreign tourists are naturally familiar with some of these arguments, but if they aren't, then they most certainly would have been if they had been paying attention to Madrid.

President Armengol was basically subjected to a complete handbagging. It was led by two of Mallorca's leading hoteliers - the baron of Meliá, Gabriel Escarrer, and the baroness of Riu, Carmen Riu. They laid into her over the tourist tax and the holiday rentals legislation. With the latter, it was perhaps odd to hear that the government was being accused of not being restrictive enough, but the point was nevertheless emphasised, as if it needed to be: the hoteliers want tight regulation of the rentals sector.

On top of this, Armengol was reprimanded by José María González, the president of Europcar, who was supposedly moderating the session. His beef had to do with government interference in the hire-car sector, including the plan for electric vehicles. Then there was the president of the Baleària shipping company, Adolfo Utor. It was illogical, he said, to have a tourist tax which supposedly is going to reduce tourist numbers, while the government is at the same time looking for better subventions for travelling to the islands and also wanting there to be a cut to the tourist rate of IVA (VAT).  

The impression of all this is far from being a false one. Most of the tourism industry, and not just the hoteliers, seems to finally be losing its patience and rag with the Balearic government. Such an impression wouldn't be conveyed at other fairs, but at Madrid it can be, as it is mainly one for a domestic audience. But a problem for the hoteliers, and not only those in Mallorca, as the issue applies widely in Spain, is that the more they go on the offensive over questions such as holiday rentals, the more they can be (and are) accused of just looking after their own greedy interests.

Yet they do have a substantial amount of support. It is curious support because much of it comes from an entirely different political and social perspective. While the national tourism minister, Álvaro Nadal (Partido Popular), can coincide with the hoteliers in blaming holiday rentals for tourism saturation, so left-wing governments and organisations level the same blame.

But the hoteliers would basically like an industry cast in a PP image. A further problem for them, however, is now being able to rely on the PP at elections. Rather than handbaggings, maybe there needs to be more glad-handing.

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