In the Franco days, the minister of tourism combined this portfolio with information. Manuel Fraga is the name we remember. His predecessor, Gabriel Arias-Salgado, was in the post for four years longer than Fraga, but who can recall him, or indeed his successor, Alfredo Sánchez Bella?
One reason why Fraga’s name lived on and the others did not was that he was as much a self-propagandist as he was in charge of the regime’s propaganda. He famously swam in the sea to dispel fears of a nuclear accident after hydrogen bombs from a US B-52 fell on Palomares in Almeria in 1966. Fraga dearly wanted to be prime minister, and he did what he had to do in cultivating his image. Sadly, for him, he never was prime minister.
Fraga’s propaganda function extended to overseeing censorship. He was to relax this to an extent, but there was never any losing sight of the messages that needed to be put across and those which needed to be suppressed. When the Palomares incident occurred, the Bulletin, subject to censorship like any other newspaper, carried the news of the midair collision between the B-52 and a KC-135 tanker on the front page. But there was no mention of H-bombs having been dropped.
The information was carefully orchestrated. Apart from anything else, Palomares was on the coast of Andalusia. Fraga’s tourists were by then heading for Fuengirola and Torremolinos, both a fair old distance from Palomares, but he couldn’t afford any muddles in the messaging. Tourism could not be harmed.
I wonder how Fraga would have handled a pandemic. Those were times of deliberate and managed disinformation and total lack of transparency, but the information (disinformation) would at least have been consistent in its messaging; Fraga would have seen to that, just as he had with the Palomares incident.
There is perhaps something to be said for the kind of control that Fraga would have exercised. Not because of disinformation, but because there wouldn’t have been a whole load of different messages, often conflicting, emanating from members of the government or from the press. The communication management of coronavirus pandemic has at times been rotten, and Spain is far from being alone in this regard.
Specific to tourism and to travel, the state of alarm was characterised by conflicting messages. There was, as an example, the observation by the employment minister, Yolanda Díaz, that it wouldn’t be possible for tourism to restart until December. She was talking about a subject that did have something to do with her because of ERTE, but otherwise it didn’t have anything to do with her. She should not have speculated about tourism. If there was any speculation to have been offered, this was for the tourism minister or the prime minister.
In the same way as health and transport were under the centralised command of the Spanish government, perhaps there should also have been a communication and information command function. One stresses perhaps, because it would have been impossible and totally unacceptable. But there might at least have been a control of what ministers were saying and which ones.
When Díaz made her remarks, the tourism industry was up in arms. How could a minister say such a thing and appear to deliver a blow to such an important industry? But the tourism industry has by now got used to messages and actions which can harm it. This still doesn’t excuse some of the messaging, though. And this brings us to the UK quarantine.
Emiliano García-Page is the president of Castile-La Mancha. He is a member of PSOE, the same party as Pedro Sánchez. Castile-La Mancha is not a region that attracts a vast amount of British tourism. At the 2017 World Travel Market in London, a presentation informed the audience that the region receives 2.1 million foreign tourists per annum, eight per cent of whom are British - around 170,000, therefore, which is nothing compared with the 2.4 million who come to Majorca (in a normal year).
Because of the numbers, García-Page has less of an axe to grind about the quarantine than neighbouring regions - Andalusia and Valencia in particular - but this hasn’t stopped him having a go at the Spanish government and holding it accountable for the quarantine. This is due, in his view, to the absence of coordinated messages between the government and regional governments and also to the fact that certain ministers were saying “for weeks that we were practically facing a second wave”. If Spain says this, then there will be reactions in other countries.
One suspects that Fraga would never have permitted this; he would have kept a lid on things. He didn’t have to worry about transparency, while he did have to worry about tourism. Still, he never faced a pandemic situation being managed by a democratically elected government.