A tourist theme park. This is one of the descriptions sometimes used by tourism sceptics or tourism opponents in Majorca. It doesn’t actually refer to a theme park. It is a form of shorthand to highlight, as an example, a proliferation of holiday rentals in a particular area. The essence of the description is an over-abundance of facilities geared towards tourism. It has emerged because of the obvious fact that a real theme park devours significant amounts of land and is, by implication although not exclusively, intended for visitors. The territory is thus attacked and is taken away from the resident community.
This theme park pejorative is one that has travelled the world in being applied to developments which may be theme parks or, more often than not, are simply projects aimed principally at tourism. It is one that attaches itself to some extraordinary schemes, which are far from being “simple”. A prime example is what happened in Dubai with The World, the construction of some 300 artificial islands for accommodating luxury villas, hotels, leisure and so on. That was the theory, as the majority of the islands haven’t been created. In Doha, there was a similar project, The Pearl.
In Hainan, China, there is Ocean Flower, the world’s largest artificial tourism island. There is another island, which is expected to be finished by the end of the year. It will be replete with hotels, apartments, restaurants, etc. Construction started on Ocean Flower in 2012 and was temporarily suspended by the Chinese government two years ago. The reason for the suspension was the same as why the Dubai and Doha projects attracted controversy - the potential environmental damage to coral reefs and marine ecosystems. Suspension or not, the islands have been built.
In the Dominican Republic, there is a far less ambitious scheme. It is on land and not in the sea. Described as a mega hotel project with some 3,000 rooms, the idea is for it to be ready by 2023. It is in Pedernales in the southwest of the country, whose president, Luis Abinader, suggests that there will also need to be an airport. The project is state-driven. If there isn’t sufficient private sector financial backing, then the state will set up a trust in order to get construction going.
The criticism of this scheme is less environmental and more a case of priority. Right now, the government should be focusing on other priorities. Abinader says that now is precisely the time to act, as in two and a half years time, there will be this new resort. And that will mean more income (and employment) from tourism.
The president may well be right, but now is also a time when questions are being asked about tourism going forward. Covid has raised these questions as never before, albeit they aren’t new and revolve around, for example, the global scale, the nature of this tourism, the environmental impacts. But Covid has sharpened the questions, in particular when it comes to global scale because of the associated travel.
Assuming that travel does return to normal, there remains the sheer voracity of tourism, an industry which is unquestionably vital for economies and is estimated to be worth (along with travel) 8.9 trillion US dollars at a global level. Tourism has to be restored, there can be no denying this, but at the same time there should be a pause to consider the scramble for conversion into some global theme park, for which certain projects rightfully raise more concerns than others. For the Dominican Republic, an additional 3,000 rooms may well make perfect sense, and I’m not saying that it doesn’t. But artificial islands? Ingenious, I don’t doubt, but can they be justified in a moral sense as much as in an environmental one? The same applies to Royal Caribbean and its private island, which genuinely is a theme park.
For Majorca, none of this quite obviously applies, but this hasn’t prevented attempts at creating theme parks. At a very modest level, and in the sea, think about the opposition voiced against temporary water parks anchored off the coasts of some resorts. Harmless enough, but do beachgoers not minded to use such a facility really want to have to look at one?
Theme park projects have come to nothing for different reasons. Questionable financial wherewithal has been one, but the biggest reason has been the environment. The Partido Popular government of 2011 to 2015 weighed up certain approaches for theme parks, but a PP tourism minister, Jaime Martínez, was to conclude that there could never be any - the environmental issues were too great.
So in Majorca, we are left with theme park as a description rather than as a reality, and on balance this is probably as well, even if there is something to be said for projects that would boost low-season tourism. An artificial island there most definitely never will be.
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