Many, many years ago, when riches to be gained from the new “industry of the foreigners” were mere dreams of the worthy gentlemen who formed the Fomento del Turismo (Mallorca Tourist Board), those gentlemen trained their eyes on the northern horizon in the expectation that a steam ship from the south of France would appear.
The gentlemen of the tourist board had lavished 2,816 Swiss francs on a promotional brochure for Mallorca - it was printed in Switzerland for some reason. The year was 1908, and the brochure sought to entice French tourists to the island by pointing out that it only took 36 hours to get to Mallorca from Paris. This brochure, replete with a cover that was a reproduction of a painting of Palma by a local artist, Faust Morell i Bellet, also let its French audience know that Mallorca was the “ideal” winter resort. Such was tourism promotion in those days - #BetterinWinter, as they didn’t used to say but might have done had they known anything about hashtags.
“Majorque”, announced the brochure on the cover. France, not Britain, was the first overseas market to receive the Mallorcan promotional treatment. France was closer than Britain, and there were historical ties. In a touristic sense, there had of course been George Sand, who protocol demands must be mentioned every time anything of a tourism history nature is raised. That she combined some admiration with a slagging-off of Majorca has always been rather conveniently overlooked.
Other links had come from trade, which most obviously meant Soller. The ties were that strong that in the nineteenth century Montpellier was considered to be every bit as important to Soller’s merchants as Barcelona or Valencia. There was also migration, and so by 1887 there were 43 restaurants in Marseille alone that were run by people from Soller.
Ideal for winter tourism was soon to become ideal for summer tourism, and Puerto Soller was transformed into an inter-war destination for the French who had developed a taste for not wearing anything at a beach. French naturists nowadays tend to halt when they get to Cap d’Agde; back then, they took the ship to Mallorca.
France used therefore to be one of the island’s main tourism markets, yet when the boom occurred, they were barely anywhere to be seen. A reason why not was that French authorities came to appreciate that its citizens were beginning to disappear over the border with Spain in summer. Something needed to be done, which was why a colossal resort such as Cap d’Agde came to be created (it wasn’t only for naturists).
In late 2011, there was a gathering of directors of overseas Spanish tourism offices. The national Turespaña agency had brought them together for the annual debrief. In considering Mallorca, the director of the Paris office observed that the number of French tourists was ridiculous - ridiculously low. It was less than 300,000, as it had been since the turn of the millennium.
The director was, however, being somewhat pre-emptive. Perhaps the year’s figures hadn’t been available, because what they revealed was a number above 300,000 - it was 317,000 in fact. By contrast, just two years before it had been 230,000. To give an idea of how this compared, there were some 3.3 million Germans and 1.9 million Brits in both 2009 and 2011.
This sudden leap in numbers must have been as much of a surprise to the director of the Paris office as it was to everyone else - a 38% rise, and this despite the fact that the financial crisis was still raging. It was also despite what the director said was a negative image among the French of Majorca being “over-constructed”.
The number has been climbing ever since 2011. By 2019 it was 514,000, so more than double what it had been ten years previously. We now have the French consulate in Palma estimating that there has been a 25% increase in French tourism since June. Improved connectivity, such as the ferry service from Toulon to Alcudia, is attributed with bringing about this increase. It will indeed be playing a significant part, but then there had been growth without this additional service.
The volume of French tourism is clearly a long way off that of Germany and the UK (in pre-pandemic terms anyway), but it seems that Mallorca is being rediscovered by the French. Anecdotally, one has been aware of more French voices than in previous years, so this impression fits with the reality of the numbers. And it is a rediscovery. A hundred years ago, the French were as important as any other nationality. A mystery was why their numbers never really grew when the boom came. But then they did have their own resorts to go to.