Roads into Palma and the resorts are taking the strain of the avalanche of tourists. | Archive


The perfect storm of August
Might this August mark a watershed in Majorcan and Balearic tourism? Within the context of the political change in spring, various factors are colliding, producing a perfect storm of tourism dynamics which go beyond this weekend's storm and produce responses to more than simply the collapse of the road network caused by tourists seeking an alternative to the beach on account of poor weather.

In fact, the roads, especially in and around Palma when the weather is less than benign, have already provoked tourism minister and vice-president, Biel Barceló, into declaring that saturation point has been reached and surpassed. Palma struggles to cope when the clouds gather: its roads clogged, its car parks full to overflowing. Why are there so many tourists? Many are the factors, but always taking some into account, such as instability in parts of the Mediterranean, there is one which, more than others, is being singled out: private holiday accommodation.

The accommodation "bubble"
It will be some months before they release the figure for the day in the middle of this month when Majorca and the Balearics reached their highest level of human occupation, but when it comes, it will surely be higher than ever before. It may even be substantially higher. Aptur, which is the association that defends the rights of the private owner to rent out his or her accommodation to tourists, is not blind to the problems that the internet has caused. It is speaking of a "bubble" which it believes will burst because of the rotten quality of some of the accommodation, thus fuelling the arguments of the hoteliers that the private apartment is not up to scratch in all manner of ways. This is a fallacious argument because there is plenty of high-quality accommodation, but it is also correct, and Aptur accepts that it is.

The association is pressing the case, therefore, for legislation to get to grips with this private supply, to finally introduce a system of properly regulated accommodation with standards to be attained and maintained. It is the pragmatic approach that the previous government simply refused to recognise the need for, preferring to outlaw all apartments rather than bring them into line with a system of standards akin to the keys' categorisation for the hotelier-owned tourist apartments.

The difficulty of regulation
The trouble is, of course, that even with regulation the bubble might well keep growing in its illegitimate fashion. Reservations via web portals for Spanish destinations are up on average by 40% this summer. These include perfectly legitimate accommodation, but they also have much which isn't. As Catalonia has discovered, regulation can bring success - by enforcing standards and by also boosting tourist tax revenue - but this doesn't eliminate the problem of the illegal supply, despite the swingeing nature of sanctions. Governments can say all they like about cracking down, but they - their tax and tourism agencies - are massively under-resourced.

Nevertheless, the need for regulation in the Balearics is urgent. Barceló, minded to be permissive towards the private accommodation sector, is an environmentalist at heart, as is his party, Més. He wants a brake applied to the number of tourists, so any regulation would need to be carefully drafted in order to still allow good accommodation to be made fully legitimate. But brake there surely has to be, and the perfect storm of this August is increasing the urgency.

All-inclusives: a change in attitude?
In a different respect - all-inclusives - something else seems to be happening. It is never perhaps wise to cite Magalluf as a benchmark but if, as is being reported, some all-inclusives have been knocking in occupancy levels substantially lower than those for other types of board, is the consumer worm finally turning? It was always going to be the case, regulation again notwithstanding, that the consumer would decide. A problem in Magalluf is knowing what type of market is leading to the lower AI occupancy. If it is family, then the worm might indeed be moving in a different direction. Ot is it a case of the family having been deterred by negative publicity?

Meanwhile, Minorca has added its voice to the saturation argument. Formentera already has but can seemingly do little to prevent its small size being flooded by tourists. In Minorca, the threshold of human pressure that it can withstand and keep within the boundaries of its status as a biosphere reserve is likely to be exceeded this month. Wherever one looks around the Balearics, the message is much the same: there are just too many people.

What the people think
There is another factor contributing to the perfect storm: attitudes of residents. For too long overlooked, they have played a part in Alcudia and Capdepera addressing the type of tourism they receive on occasion, while in Playa de Palma, residents have had enough. Noise, filth, crime, anti-social behaviour and a consequent inability to relax or sleep are pushing tensions high. They are similar in a way to what led Barcelona to come down so heavily in La Barceloneta. When mayor José Hila speaks of a cleaner Palma, he has to take into account that Palma means more than just the old centre and the neighbourhoods.

It is understood, quite clearly understood, that Majorca lives by its tourism. But it is tourism which should be on Majorca's terms, not those of others. It is for Majorca to decide on the balance of its accommodation, not websites, not tour operators. The overwhelming majority of the island's visitors are respectful. And this majority needs to be cared for properly. The perfect storm has arrived: kick out the dross of the minority, kick out the rotten accommodation, kick out the poor quality end of the all-inclusive market. And keep the traffic moving.