August ten years ago I was contacted by the BBC. The presenter of the ‘Fast Track’ travel programme, Rajan Datar, was staying in Playa de Muro. He was going to do a piece about all-inclusives. Could I give him a hand, type of thing. Sure. Why not.
In 2012, Rajan was named the Broadcast Travel Journalist of the Year at the Business Travel Awards. I mention this because here was someone with a great deal of experience (as well as journalistic expertise). But even that bank of experience could not prevent him from being taken aback. I took him to get a feel of what all-inclusive was like.
This was one evening at a very well-known complex in Alcudia. We went to the entertainment centre. What struck him, amazed him was the sight of so many holidaymakers queuing with plastic glasses for beers at bars. There was one bar that wasn’t all-inclusive. There was no one there. Except the two of us. We had a beer. We had proper glasses. We sat on stools by the bar. We could chat to the under-employed barman. We handed over money. He watched in virtual disbelief at the endless queues.
I fixed up an interview with a bar proprietor. The filming ended in tears. Literally. There was a poster which explained that the bar would be closing at the end of the season. For the first nine seasons of the millennium business had been good. Then came the financial crisis. As significant was the advance of all-inclusive. He was to take on another bar and is still going, but he had to call the old one a day; hence the tears. It was no longer working. Apart from opening for a time one season since 2011, it has been closed and up for sale.
There was another complex. This wasn’t in Alcudia. It was the flagship First Choice resort on the island - an exclusive all-inclusive. This was around the time when First Choice advertised AI with the line “leave your wallet at home”. There was recognition in the Fast Track piece that this didn’t really help local businesses. The phrase had been dropped. As advertising perhaps. I came across it again in 2019.
You can bet that it didn’t really help the local area and local businesses. Nevertheless, the report needed balance, and there was no escaping the popularity of AI among holidaymakers. I said that it was a no-brainer. I could completely understand families opting for AI, and there was the financial crisis. But you always came back to the same seemingly intractable problem - that of the effects on the wider economy and on bars and restaurants in the shadows of all-inclusives.
Nothing in the report was new to me, which was a reason why I was asked to be involved. I had seen it all, heard it all over several years. I’ve continued to. The other day I bumped into a bar owner, a friend of the chap whose bar had to close in 2011. How long would it be before he mentioned all-inclusive? It wasn’t long.
Yet right now, because of Covid, there is relief that there are holidaymakers, all-inclusive or not. There is business. It has been damaged, there are no two ways about that, and even the AI brings in some custom, which - if one is being fair - it always has. Not every holidaymaker wants to remain within the confines of an AI hotel complex, even those where the quality is high and the service is excellent; and there are most definitely such hotels.
All-inclusive doesn’t help, but as part of the tourism narrative at a local level, it isn’t the chief sinner. Covid is. And that makes me wonder, fear about the resilience going forward. Maybe I shouldn’t, because there has already been remarkable resilience, and there was pre-Covid. There is no denying the harmful effect that all-inclusive had over several years. There is also no denying that businesses went under directly because of AI.
And yet there are still the same bars and restaurants, the same faces, the same gripes (added to now because of Covid). They survived all-inclusive, and this owed at least something to location.
As they’re surviving, this gives hope that they can continue to, while ten years on from the ‘Fast Track’ report, there has been a shift in the all-inclusive thinking. Perceived changes in holidaymaker demands, a recognition that all-inclusive isn’t the most profitable regime for a hotel have led to some reduction of the offer. Or had anyway. The history of growth of all-inclusive in Mallorca demonstrates a direct relationship with general economic circumstances. AI initially grew on the back of recession in the early ‘90s. The financial crisis prompted a boom.
Time moves on. I find it hard to believe that it is ten years since that report. But it was, and over the ten years there has been survival. All-inclusive has been the great challenge. There is now a greater one.