Residents of the Balearics and tourists can enjoy the beach.

Residents of the Balearics and tourists can enjoy the beach.

27-06-2019J. AGUIRRE

It has come to something when there can be a news report stating that the Balearics are targeting there being 3,000 foreign tourists in late June. To put this figure into context, as if anyone needs reminding, in June last year there were just over two million foreign tourists, and some concern was being expressed at the fact that there had been a 2.6% decrease compared with June 2018. What a difference a year makes.

These 3,000 are the advance guard of the new normal, post-Covid tourist collective. They are the test tourists, the ones that the Balearic government, island councils and hoteliers are so keen to welcome. Three thousand. It hardly seems worth the effort, but it is considered to be important in demonstrating the soundness of safe travel, safe accommodation, safe beach, safe etc. protocols. Majorca, and we are really talking Majorca and only one or perhaps two resort areas in Majorca, will steal an advantage over other destinations by showing that it is a safe destination.

Earlier this week, the Majorca Hoteliers Federation's president, Maria Frontera, expressed her optimism at the Spanish government's announcement that the borders will be open to admit foreign tourists from the first of July. But she restated the necessity for there to be authorisation for this test tourism. The Balearic economy had already suffered a 2,000 million euro loss, and "every day that passes makes the situation more dramatic".

Indeed it does, though one wonders how much of an improvement a June intake of 0.15% of last year's June tourism will genuinely make. Still, June isn't really the game that's at stake. It's July onwards which is, and if the Balearics are seen to be pioneering the revival of tourism, then the Balearics will benefit more than other destinations. And what publicity awaits. The test tourists are likely to be greeted at the airport as if they are returning heroes. Members of the government will doubtless be there, President Armengol smiling happily from behind her mask as she welcomes the first tourist through the gate by ceremonially taking that tourist's temperature.

More and more I sense that politics are at play as much as the need for economic reactivation (the two clearly being linked anyway). Let's remind ourselves how the idea for test tourists came about, as it wasn't an idea of the government's. At the start of this month, the Association of Hotel Chains (ACH) proposed a two-week test period that would begin on June 15. With de-escalation phases having commenced, it was evident even then that the Spanish government was aiming for a first of July foreign tourism kickoff. Forget all the quarantine diversion by the ministry of health, the first of July was the plan, even if went unstated. Knowing this, the ACH advocated the test. This would be in order to check on procedures at the airport of origin, at Son Sant Joan, on coaches, in hotels. Fifteen days of test would check that everything was "normal" and that there were no problems with protocols.

Some days later and the government started to float this idea as well, President Armengol in particular. She hasn't stopped talking about it ever since, and it is here where the politics enter. Look how we (the government) got the tourism economy going before anywhere else; something to this effect. A good political message to present to a decimated society and to an army of workers either out of work or under ERTE terms. It's the like the subordinate who comes up with an idea and lets the boss think he or she came up with it and take all the glory. Not that the ACH will care less; it just wants to get hotels open for 3,000 tourists.

The snags with the test plan are that the Spanish government has fixed a date in July, that there is a quarantine and that therefore there has been no authorisation. But with all the statements that have been flying around - Armengol's constant references, support from the national tourism minister and so on - I'm pretty much convinced that this authorisation is a formality. It hasn't been announced, but is there, ready to be unveiled when Pedro Sánchez deems this to be most opportune.

The quarantine is linked to the state of alarm, but as we know - because Sánchez has said so - the state of alarm could be lifted early in certain regions; the Balearics would be one of these regions. Quarantine could still apply even without the state of alarm, as it would be a matter of public health and national security, but one suspects that it wouldn't and that by mid-June the Balearics will have arrived at the new normal a week earlier than had been envisaged. Ready, therefore, to admit foreign tourists. And so we therefore now have President Armengol pressing for the Balearics to enter de-escalation Phase 3 from the first of June; Phase 3 would end two weeks later at the maximum. Assuming of course that the "epidemiological" data allow this, and these data might yet just scupper the whole plan.


The marketing of safety

Majorca and the Balearics as safe destinations has never been central to promotional activity, although it has been more of a theme in recent years. The terrorism in rival destinations made these destinations appear unsafe. The Balearics gained a sizeable advantage because the islands were safe. Now with Covid, there is something similar happening - or so we are led to believe.

We have learned this week that tour operators are apparently prioritising Majorca (and presumably also the other islands) over other destinations in their contracting for 2021. This is because the Balearics are deemed to be safer. Perhaps the tour operators are indeed making this preference, but it's not as if other destinations aren't pushing the same kinds of message or as if some of these other destinations can't point to some decent management of the virus. In terms of promotional messages, Turkey, for example, has a campaign of "healthy tourism"; there have been 4,430 deaths in Turkey out of a confirmed number of cases of 160,000. Greece, another of the destinations over which the Balearics will supposedly be receiving tour operator priority, has lost only 170-odd people to the virus out of just 2,900 confirmed cases. The country adopted restrictive measures before anyone had died. Its response to the virus was impressive.


Be Live up for sale

Globalia are understood to have put their Be Live hotels up for sale. The Majorca-based group has 34 hotels. Most of them are not in the Balearics - the Palace de Muro is one that is. There are, for example, six in the Dominican Republic and eight in Cuba, and it had appeared as if the hotels were part of the group's ongoing strategy. This was before the crisis, though. The sale of Air Europa to IAG could now result in a lower price, while the merger of its travel agency operations with Barceló has been put on hold.

It is said that Globalia are needing cash, and so the hotels are being looked upon as a source of raising liquidity. But how much might this be? The company doesn't own all of the hotels and it has mortgages on others.

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