Employees are laid off at the end of the season and called back to work when hotels need them. | T. AYUGA

According to Balearic tourism ministry figures for 1998, there were 1,452 hotel or similar establishments in Mallorca with 268,564 accommodation places. In 2021, there were 1,787 with 305,886 places. I refer to these figures not to make a point about growth, which was not huge by comparison with the fifteen years preceding 1998 (largely due to the appearance of the key-rated tourist apartments, which didn’t exist until 1984), but to place the number of establishments in the context of how many are open in the low season.

A newspaper report in February 1998 pointed to 33% of Mallorca’s hotels having been open in January of that year - 480. Were there really this number open? It’s doubtful, as the 33% wasn’t for all establishments; it was for ones that came under the Mallorca Hoteliers Federation, and the federation has only ever had membership of some 50% of the total. Even so, 33% sounds very decent when compared with the 11.9% in February 2020, immediately before the state of alarm, or the 13.4% in February 2019. But these were the percentages given by the ministry and so based on all establishments.

It’s very difficult to get a true picture of how much really is open. The federation says that 33% of hotels were open in February 2019 and so that was somewhat comparable with how the situation was 25 years ago. Unfortunately, the ministry didn’t give month-by-month figures in 1998, so one has to rely on other sources, such as newspaper reports, and obtaining figures from these can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. I only know about the January 1998 opening because it was recently highlighted for having been 25 years ago.

For this February, says the hoteliers federation, 31% of hotels were open. In other words, the scale of opening hasn’t altered fundamentally since the end of the last century. But were, using the 2021 stats, 554 hotels open last month? No, the number would have been more like 260, which in itself sounds like quite a lot when one takes account of the situation in the island’s resorts; less so, because of establishments that are open in the interior.

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The president of the Aviba association of travel agents in the Balearics, Xesc Mulet, says that in his forty years’ experience he can’t remember anything similar to the level of activity there has been and will be this month (62.5% of hotels open, adds the federation). And yet there has been something similar - 25 years ago, for instance. A difference lies with the total number of establishments. Otherwise, the situation isn’t that exceptional in historical terms. Even during the years of financial crisis, hotel opening in February (for all establishments) held up reasonably - 25% in 2008, down to 19.2% by 2012 but then 16.2% in 2013.

However, it is the hoteliers federation’s figures which count, as these are the ones that make the headlines, not the tourism ministry’s. And so yes, a forecast 62% of hotels open in March, climbing to 77% in the first fortnight of April is all part of a positive trend. Yet it is a trend that still raises a question as to why there aren’t more hotels open in the low season.

Maria Frontera, the president of the hoteliers federation, last week spoke about difficulties with attracting qualified staff. A solution, she suggested, would be “to provide employment throughout the year and to consign the six-month season to the past”. Well, it’s in the hoteliers’ gift to do just this, is it not? We know the usually cited reasons, such as flights, which are a case of chicken and egg. But there is one reason that is less commonly mentioned, which is the nature of employment contracts.
Among the not infrequent tosh one comes across in the form of comments on, for instance, social media, there was an observation about Balearic legislation. This comment suggested that there is law which keeps hotels closed. It was rubbish, the only possible justification I could think of for having made it being the contracts, and ‘fijo discontinuo’ in particular.

There is no legislation, while fijo discontinuo isn’t confined to the Balearics. But it has been argued in the past that the prevalence of this form of contract indicates a lack of incentive for hotels to stay open. If this has been the case, it could feasibly be argued that there is now less incentive. This is because of Spain’s labour reform, the effects of which have started to become apparent. Under this reform, many temporary contracts were made permanent, with this permanence often meaning fijo discontinuo.

Employees are laid off at the end of the season and called back to work when hotels need them. Meantime, they receive benefit. But, and here’s another disincentive, they are not counted as being unemployed. The good unemployment figures in the Balearics at present are partly explained by the increased number of workers with a fijo discontinuo contract. This is fine for the Balearic government, as it can point to a positive situation, but is it so fine for the greatly desired all-year-round season?
Maria Frontera would like to see more all-year employment, but she must surely know that contracts are a factor in preventing this and that the hotel industry would not be rushing to lobby for a change.