Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Valencia: Tourism Common Sense

I would like to introduce you to a gentleman called Francesc Colomer Sánchez. You probably haven't heard of him, unless you live in or are from Valencia (the region, that is). Colomer is a politician with the PSPV, the Valencia arm of PSOE. He has a degree in philosophy (about which more below) and has been the mayor of Benicàssim on three occasions. This is a coastal town in Valencia, for which tourism is vitally important. It also plays host to one of Spain's most important rock and pop music festivals, held each year in July. Colomer, when he was first the mayor (he took office when he was only 24), was a driving force behind starting the festival.

Colomer was for a time the president (speaker) of the Valencia parliament during the current legislature. He stepped down in order to become the Valencia region's secretary of tourism. Valencia has an unusual government structure in this regard. There isn't a tourism ministry as such. The Valencia Tourism Agency, of which Colomer is secretary, reports directly to the regional president, Ximo Puig.

Philosophy is important to Colomer. In a recent interview, he mentioned the word often. This interview, from Hosteltur, reveals someone who is a clear thinker about tourism, and this thinking isn't clouded by philosophical musings. It is right down to earth, there is an absence of allusions to political ideologies. It is quite simply very sensible.

In Valencia there is talk of a tourist tax. Colomer rejects the idea. His explanation why demonstrates his thinking, and it is worth quoting what he said. "I am against it for various reasons. For one, there are markets which are highly sensitive to price - in the UK, spending power may fall because of Brexit. Another reason is that it seems unfair to me that there is a tax on accommodation ... when this brings people who spend in shops, restaurants or theatres. And we shouldn't forget a more philosophical concept, which is that hospitality is an attribute of our tourism. We should not transfer to the tourist our insolvencies or our incapacity to organise a city ... . In this philosophical respect, I don't see there being a tax on the tourist who already pays for everything."

Picking over what he says, one thing is very striking. A tourist tax is contradictory to a philosophy of providing hospitality. What a powerful notion, and partly this power springs from Colomer's attitude towards tourism and tourists. There is a pride in rejecting a tax that can undermine a reputation for being hospitable and being grateful for what tourism brings.

The contrast with the Balearics is great. For starters, Colomer doesn't litter his arguments with sustainability or any of the political buzz words and phrases of the moment. Most obviously, and unlike the Balearics, he is a socialist politician who doesn't see merit in the tourist tax. Would it be too much to ask that Valencia seconds him to the Balearics?

There are other aspects that Colomer covers in this interview which show just how different Valencia is to the Balearics. One of the most significant is how tourism policy is directed. The Valencia government is to be a 50% stakeholder in this. New legislation in the region establishes that there is "collaborative governance" of tourism. Businesses, unions, universities, chambers of commerce, leading tourism "brands", provincial administrations, the principal cities in the region: these are all part of this collaboration.

So, in Valencia, rather than pitting different sectors together, they want to bring them together. The result, one would trust, would be consensus and genuine consensus at that and not the consensus of all the blather that we get in the Balearics. And at the heart of this is someone who displays a grasp of his subject that shames the Balearics and the on-message repetitions by politicians who give the impression of being intellectual pygmies by comparison.

Biel Barceló, when he was tourism minister, suggested that the tourism ministry could disappear. This would be because of the transfer of responsibilities to the island councils. In Valencia, there may not be a ministry as such, but the importance of tourism is plain to see. The regional president heads the tourism structure, something I have advocated for the Balearics in the past.

Valencia isn't without its tourism problems. Like the Balearics, the region has to contend with illegal accommodation, and they're coming down hard on it. Colomer wants the Spanish government to take a role and harmonise legislation, which the national tourism minister seems most disinclined to do. Valencia also has its centres of very dense tourism populations: Benidorm, for instance. But it has by and large escaped anti-tourism protests. Might this owe at least something to the messages of politicians?

Among those messages are ones of common sense, spoken by a philosopher. Lucky old Valencia.

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