Right at the moment it can seem ridiculous to be even contemplating a situation in which there might be an optimum or maximum number of tourists in Mallorca. It is precisely because we are at this moment, however, that the debate is being renewed and may actually have some chance of producing an outcome.
A thing to be said about the debate sparked off by the presentation of the Civil Society Forum’s document to parliament last week is that it is far from new. One can go back to the late 1960s and a time when criticism wasn’t exactly encouraged to note signs of dissent and of charges of “saturation”.
For as long as there has been some form of mass tourism, there has been a debate, and this has certainly not been unique to Mallorca. It is a global debate, but a global pandemic has been key to readdressing the debate, because of the assumption that post-Covid tourism won’t be the same and nor should it be the same.
Covid is but one factor, one important factor. The others include climate change and the whole broad discussion of sustainability, which goes way beyond environmental concerns to involve economies, societies, technologies and more.
The lesson of Covid for Mallorca is one that no one can possibly deny should have been acted on many a year ago - addressing the almost total dependence on tourism. The unimaginable has happened, and it is now imperative that the future is re-imagined.
For all that this is imperative, and for all - as I have noted - that there is emerging consensus, might the old complacency and inertia come back to dominate? Complacency has been the killer of strategic economic innovation in the past, and for good reason.
When there has been crisis, it has been tourism that has led the way to recovery. This crisis, however, is of a totally different order. Complacency cannot be allowed to settle in as the tourists return and some sort of pre-Covid normality in terms of their numbers is restored (possibly).
Consensus exists in principle, but moving from principle to definition is the hard part. In this regard, and referring back to the Civil Society Forum’s proposals regarding hotel conversion, one can appreciate how difficult consensus will be. In theory, the document calls for the removal of over 40% of existing hotel stock, that which has the H classification; there is a great deal more stock besides.
I have advocated conversion for years - well before the 2012 tourism law established what turned out to be an ineffective framework for it - but the proposals are way too simplistic and might also be described as way too dramatic. But perhaps by conceiving a change on such a huge scale does help to exercise minds and to consider the key questions of optimum and maximum numbers.
There is clearly a difference between optimum and maximum, and it is the former that takes precedence. Optimum entails employment, natural resources, services, environment, infrastructure and societal well-being. But it also entails capital and economic structure.
Diversification that compensates for the loss of jobs from, for example, conversion doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years, and meanwhile there needs to a flourishing enough economic environment for capital to be diverted, for investment to generate returns and for jobs to be maintained - and hopefully permanent and well-paid jobs.
Much though the Civil Society Forum’s document is thought-provoking, it is ill-thought-out. The example that is given of Magalluf and the loss of jobs (almost 600) is proof of this, despite the fanciful notion of some 60% being reallocated to construction. And then there are all the other resorts where a similar process would occur.
It isn’t just the direct employment. What of other businesses in the area, such as restaurants? There would be the four and five-star tourism to serve and there would be the new residents of the converted accommodation - the socially housed residents, according to the proposals. Would other businesses survive?
Moreover, there is the entire so-called tourism value chain of businesses - transport operators, excursions operators, taxi-drivers, attractions, distributors and others. These have taken a hammering because of Covid. Are they craving a post-Covid future of reduced business?
Prior to Covid, Mallorca was receiving some 10.5 million foreign tourists and 1.5 million Spanish tourists per annum. Is half of twelve million the optimum? Two-thirds? Five-sixths? Would anyone care to come up with a figure and support it with a convincing argument, because this is essentially what is being asked.
Taking the Civil Society Forum’s proposals to their logical conclusion and based on the three main types of accommodation and their star and key ratings as of 2019, tourist numbers would be cut by 46%. So yes, around a half.
Would this be optimum or would it be maximum? There is a big difference.