It was an unremarkable item of news, but it spoke volumes. Last week, it was announced that 46 projects funded by the tourist tax had been completed. These were 46 since the tax was introduced and were therefore among projects approved from late 2016 on.
The report stated that 170 projects in all had been approved, meaning that just over a quarter had been concluded. This in itself wasn’t unduly surprising. There have been projects which straddle more than one year and there will have been plenty subject to lengthy bureaucratic processing. It wasn’t the number that made me react by considering this report pathetic, it was its content and its apparent timing.
Coming on the back of the row over the use of tax revenue for the Los 40 Music Awards, it appeared as if the government had wished to counteract negative PR by highlighting the environmental benefit of the tax, this environmental angle having seemingly been neglected in sponsoring an event featuring Ed Sheeran. The monitoring of posidonia and marine reserves was therefore emphasised.
Maybe the report had been scheduled anyway, but it did seem somewhat opportune in reminding the public of justifications for a tax, revenue from which has been sunk into a general pot for Covid funds and will again be next year. Contained in this report, therefore, was a statement outlining the purposes for the tax - six of them in all, and only one of which is directly environmental.
Because of the crisis, the diversion of revenue has not been entirely unreasonable, the government having offered examples of specific funding of a tourist nature. The Covid hotel for accommodating tourists who test positive while in Mallorca has been one.
However, this recent row has merely served to once more expose arguments about the need for the tax and the philosophy behind it. As it says on the tin, this is a tax for sustainable tourism, the definition of which can at times mean all things to all men, such is the breadth of application. In Majorca, because tourism reaches so widely, more or less everything has a tourism connection, if one cares to make the case for this.
There will be, there are tourists who don’t care how the revenue is spent. They pay the tax and that’s the end of the matter. There are others who do care. Whatever the attitude, it shouldn’t be neglected that it is tourists who pay. They are stakeholders in a tax. In addition, they provide this island’s economic lifeblood, which is the reason why I have consistently opposed the tourist tax.
In terms of competitiveness, the tax hasn’t until now had a negative impact. It may never, but there are voices who say that it will, and in the short term because of a hyper-competitive Covid environment. Regardless of any competitive effect, the Balearics shouldn’t need to concern themselves with the possibility, especially given the specious nature of the underlying philosophy and application.
Since the tax was introduced, there has been an emotional appeal focusing on the environmental vulnerability of the Balearics and on a legacy of tourism over several decades. Yet, it was not tourists who, for example, destroyed dunes and erected resorts on flattened land. Consistent failure over the decades to strike a balance has led to a situation whereby today’s tourists are expected to contribute to its rectification.
I don’t buy the argument that people are used to paying a tourist tax as similar taxes exist elsewhere. It is no justification to say that there will be a tax simply because somewhere else has one and nor can there be justification for using revenue in ways that stretch the meaning of sustainable tourism well beyond the imagination - for social rent purposes, for instance.
This said, I don’t subscribe to the accusation that the tax is anti-tourism. Not generally anyway. The former tourism minister, Biel Barceló of Més, the principal promoter of the tax, had this accusation levelled at him. My impression of Barceló was that he had an appreciation of tourism, even if it was different to that of others, and that he was sincere and not motivated by ideology. (Francina Armengol’s PSOE were reluctant to accept the tax but did so as a condition of coalition government.)
However, ideology can seem to intrude, which is how the hoteliers association in Valencia perceive an agreement by coalition partners - PSOE, pushed by Compromis (similar to Més) and Podemos - to introduce a tourist tax by the end of 2022. This is said to be “municipal and voluntary”, which threatens to be chaotic, while it may be recalled that Compromis have advocated a tourist tax to pay for the emancipation of young people through social housing developments.
This has nothing to do with tourists. If it becomes a feature of the Valencia tax, it will be as distant from being warranted as social rent is in the Balearics. The tax is thus exploitative, its justification wholly dubious.