Forty years ago, the reporting of tourist numbers was not like it is now, while over the decades, the reporting has been highly inconsistent, meaning that arriving at firm figures isn’t straightforward. Nevertheless, let’s start with a solid enough number - in 1981, 4,984,084 tourists came to the Balearics.
Fine, but what about Mallorca and when?
Reports from Palma town hall and the Interinsular General Council (there was no Balearic government in 1981) give roughly similar figures for passenger numbers at the airport for that year. Based on these, it is possible to conclude that Mallorca had some 3.6 million tourists that year. By further extrapolation, one can arrive at a rough estimate of how many there were in the five months of the low season (January to March and November and December) - 666,000.
In 2019, Mallorca attracted 11.9 million tourists. Of these, approximately 1.85 million came in these five months, 15.5% of the total as opposed to 18.5% in 1981. In percentage terms, therefore, there was a fall in the amount of low season tourism, but in real terms it had almost trebled.
While the main tourism season in Mallorca is classified as being from May to October - an historical quirk largely to do with contracts - April to October is more meaningful because the ‘Easter effect’ is usually felt in April.
Accordingly, the five months are the low season or what can also be dubbed the winter season, a calendar that airlines follow as their “winter” schedules are from the end of October to the end of March. The Mallorca Chamber of Commerce refers to the main season as April to October.
I point to the figures and to the seasonal definition because, as every year, the old chestnut of winter tourism has been in focus over recent days. This means that there is the looking-back to what some might say was a golden era of winter tourism in Majorca. Yet the figures don’t exactly back this up.
Forty years ago, the percentage of winter tourists was greater in overall terms, but the actual numbers were way lower. Nevertheless, one can understand the impression if one views winter tourism from a British perspective.
When the boom occurred in the 1960s, there initially wasn’t a winter season. Or if there was, it was so limited that it was barely noticeable. Such was the seasonality that the Franco government at one point decided to have a tourist day in late September. The idea was to try and extend the season. It wasn’t exactly a roaring success; more meaningful was to be a growing airline interest.
In the ‘70s a winter season did start to emerge, and by 1981 it was overwhelmingly British. The figures from the Interinsular General Council for that year are instructive in itemising charter flights by month that were operated by Iberia. In January, for example, 1,139 Iberia charter flights arrived in Palma. Of these, 473 were from ‘Inglaterra’ (which may have included the rest of the UK). This number of flights was way ahead of Spain (284) and Germany (168).
A similar pattern applied to the other four months of the winter season, and for the five months together, the total number of ‘English’ passengers was a little under 310,000. And this was just Iberia.
Over the years since 1981, the percentage of all tourists who come in the five winter season months has remained roughly similar. By 2009, for instance, there were 1.5 million, 17.5% of the annual total. But that year’s figure showed how much the balance had changed - 38.2% of all winter tourists were Spanish, a growth that was due in no small part to the Imserso state-subsidised holidays for senior citizens.
In 2019, national arrivals at Palma in January, November and December were greater than all international arrivals.
Back in the 1980s, winter sun tourism started to expand. Long-haul became a factor that it previously hadn’t been. Ski tourism, until then something for small, niche tour operators, attracted the interest of the bigger operators. British consumer demand and aspirations thus changed accordingly, while the German market caught up and eventually surpassed the British as Majorca’s number one supplier of tourists. Nowadays, there are that many more winter flights from German airports than British because Germany is the bigger market, while it was key to the growth in low-season cycling tourism.
We all have our views of winter tourism, but for Mallorca it has only ever been a minor component. The Balearic government launched #BetterinWinter a few years back. There are co-marketing campaigns with airlines and tour operators. There are some social security discounts to try and keep hotel employees on ‘fijo discontinuo’ contracts in work over the winter. The tourist tax is a quarter of the main season rate.
It’s not as if efforts haven’t been made and aren’t being made, and the bet is for an alternative type of tourism, with the emphasis on active and sports tourism, culture and so on. Ultimately, though, you only perhaps have to look at the Canaries, where they consider winter to be their high season.