Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Balearics Tourism: A Research Experiment

The things I do. Having grappled with the equation-littered methodology of Messrs Rosselló and Sansó and their taxing tourism, as highlighted two days ago, I set myself the masochistic task of consulting the whole 93rd edition of the journal Cuadernos Económicos (special theme, tourism and sustainability).

Actually, I didn't bother with something about visitors to the Teide National Park in Tenerife or with a hybrid multi-criteria method for evaluating the development of community tourism in Imababura, Ecuador (there are limits even to my research). Otherwise though, here was a minor treasure trove of tourism sustainability intelligence; or one hoped there was.

Mercifully, not all of it was the avalanche of mathematical formulae that Rosselló and Sansó had presented in determining (or maybe not determining) the loss of tourism because of the Balearic tourist tax. Indeed some of it was fairly straight to the point, insofar as anything that appears in an academic publication can ever be described as being straight to the point (and normally it can't be).

Bernard Lane, who is the founding editor of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, offered views on the evolution and future of sustainable tourism. He identified twenty likely growth areas for second-generation sustainable tourism research (we are apparently now in the second generation). One of these made for particularly interesting reading. Under financial and taxation instruments, Lane said that tourism has fought shy of this type of control and referred to the "anger" created by the tourist tax in the Balearics both in 2002 and more recently in 2016.

It was illuminating that he should single out the Balearics tax. The Catalonia tax has been a more permanent feature - it's been going for six years - while there are other taxes, especially city ones, which predate the Balearics Ecotax Mark II. Yet it was the Balearics tax which was highlighted. I am ever more convinced that the "anger", notwithstanding the rates of the tax, is the consequence of the attention that Mallorca and the Balearics attract, which is vastly greater than anywhere else.

Lane added that "as neo-liberalism increases, financial and taxation issues will assume greater importance". Neo-liberalism? Are we to conclude that ex-minister Biel Barceló and the current Balearic government have inherited the neo-liberalism Earth of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman? Besides, isn't neo-liberalism something to do with less tax? Well no, it's about expanding the tax base. Even so, it seems curious to link neo-liberalism to tourist taxes, especially as it is supposed to promote growth, competitiveness and wealth.

What I think he was really driving at was that taxation is a means of sustainability and the sole means. He later adds that neo-liberalist ideologies actually threaten sustainability, and that - one assumes - is because such ideologies are so geared towards growth and can be the antithesis of, say, environmental sustainability. Whatever one thinks about the Balearics tax, there is at least some genuine defence of the environment.

Lane also considered governance issues, and on these his words leave one wondering as to who, if anyone, is in charge of tourism: "Tourism is remarkably ungoverned and perhaps in some respects ungovernable, in part because of the fragmented ownership of its private sector elements, and in part because of the changing and complex nature of the public sector components that both control infrastructure and have some governance powers through planning permissions and some marketing activities. Tourism is also a relatively leaderless industry except in terms of lobbying."

Well, pick the bones out of that. He could easily be describing the Balearics. There is fragmentation in the private sector, such as with all the hotel groups that exist and their differences, as exemplified by the wage negotiations. The larger and wealthier groups basically drove the wage increases through in their desire for more sustainable employment. The leadership through lobbying is manifestly the case in the Balearics, as with the Mallorca Hoteliers Federation. Lobbying is its prime function.

At the public sector level we have the regular shifts in political control. These create a flip-flop of policies and of matters such as planning. The lack of leadership is such that there may no longer be a tourism minister in future, if Biel Barceló is to believed. This leadership, if it exists, will be shunted downwards to the islands councils until there is a later decision to reverse this. There is therefore an incoherence that undermines long-term planning for sustainability.

The article wasn't offering any solutions. It was about areas for further research or even some research. With financial measures for sustainability, e.g. the tourist tax, there is very little knowledge of their impact. The Balearics provide a perfect test base for understanding this impact because of the scale and scope of the tax. But do we really want the islands' tourism to be treated as an experiment? Because that is what it appears to be.

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