British tourists arriving at the airport

British tourists arriving at the airport.

03-06-2021R.I.

The Yom Kippur War lasted less than three weeks, but those days in October 1973 were to have major ramifications way beyond the Middle East. The oil crisis was a direct consequence of the war. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) announced an oil embargo, targeted at countries considered to have backed Israel. The UK was one of them.

Up to 1973, or more accurately 1974, given when the oil crisis had started, Mallorca’s tourism hadn’t been startled by events completely beyond its control, while the island had been one of the chief contributors to the Spanish miracle. Tourism wasn’t the sole reason why a basket-case economy of the late 1950s was turned around, but for Mallorca it might just as well have been. As an example, the island didn’t share in the Franco technocrats’ bet on car manufacturing, which was another reason for the turnaround. Tourism it was, and tourism was everything.

The oil crisis caused a shock that interrupted what had been the inexorable rise of tourism once convenient air transport had enabled mass tourism. The cost of charter flights was to rise alarmingly. This wasn’t to be an obstacle to eventual tourism re-growth, but in the short term the oil crisis meant the loss of some ten per cent of package holidays. Based on what had been the tourism growth trajectory prior to Yom Kippur, it was to be the end of the 1970s before there was some normalisation.

In August 1974, thousands upon thousands of holidaymakers, many of them in Mallorca, were stranded when Court Line collapsed and took Clarkson and Horizon with it. The Department of Trade and Industry concluded that there were various factors which had contributed to this collapse; the oil crisis was just one. Pricing was another. The cost of charters weren’t only to increase because of the oil crisis; tour operators, in fierce price competition, had been selling way too cheaply. The DTI’s report also identified rapid expansion and inadequate management. The serious setback of the oil crisis affected the whole business.

Rapid expansion, serious setback - Court Line was a metaphor for Mallorca, where management, if one could call it that, had set up a system that was as highly geared towards a specific market (the British) as Court Line had been in its inadequate financial control. Dependence was total, and it took the oil crisis and the collapse of Court Line, at that time the largest implosion in British aviation history, to make Mallorca wake up and realise the totality of this dependence.

There was a view in Mallorca that the oil crisis-inspired shock exposed a colonialism on behalf of foreign tour operators. Something needed to be done to wrest back control. Something? What was that to be exactly, and who was going to do it? A colonialism there may have been, but any thoughts about reducing the dependence seemed to be confined to what had been perceived as the principal source of this colonialism - the British.

The “management” in Mallorca turned more to the Germans, who in the 1970s represented a smaller tourist market than the British and who hadn’t specifically been targeted by OAPEC.

The upshot of all this was to be that Mallorca (and the Balearics) forged a dual dependence - British and German - which has of course endured. In 2019, Mallorca received 10.3 million foreign tourists, more or less two-thirds of whom were either British or German. The third market, excluding “other international”, was Scandinavian, which was less than a third the size of the British, which in turn was around 60% the size of the German.

Thoughts back in the 1970s about greater control in lessening dependence were never likely to get anyone very far. The reality was, and is, that there are two foreign tourist superpowers and that any difficulties they may experience directly affect Mallorca. It isn’t just their economies, it is their businesses. For Court Line, read, for instance, Thomas Cook, which we have all more or less forgotten about because something significantly worse happened.

Right now, all we hear about it is what is occurring politically in the UK and Germany and with UK and German tour operators. Nothing else matters and nowhere else matters. You can combine all the Scandinavian, Benelux, French and Italian tourists in 2019 and you will still be shy of the British by around 400,000. As for the German, more than two million.

When Boris Johnson hints at something, when Angela Merkel makes a remark, when comments by ministers or by tour operator and travel association representatives in either country are quoted, they are clung onto in Mallorca not because of obsessiveness but because of absolute necessity. Mallorca, as we are reminded so often, is way too dependent on tourism, when in fact the island’s dependence is on two countries.

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