Airport passenger numbers have been slightly down on 2019's. | Miquel À. Cañellas


When Biel Barceló was tourism minister from 2015 to 2017, it seemed as if he had coined the word "saturation" to describe the number of tourists. As it happens, he hadn't. Saturation may have become a more popular (or perhaps unpopular) word during Barceló's tenure, but history shows that tourism saturation existed back in the late sixties. Yes, even in the days of Franco, when criticisms of any sort were somewhat risky, there were those in Mallorca who dared to speak of saturation.

It's therefore been like this for more than fifty years, a qualification for saturation clearly having altered over the decades and to such a degree that the word has lost its meaning. If there was saturation in 1972, what is there now?

So en vogue has the debate become that we even have Annie Lennox to thank for her contribution. Who next? Bono? How about Geldof? I'm sure he could muster some chums for a Mallorca Aid concert, but he'd better steer clear of Deya, which is impossible to access anyway, except by helicopter, such are the numbers of vehicles veering to avoid an indignant Lluis Apesteguia.

Saturation in Palma, saturation in Valldemossa, saturation on Es Trenc and Formentor roads. It's just like old times. Adding to the chaos in Formentor the other day was the environment minister, Miquel Mir, who presumably hadn't hopped on a shuttle bus to get to a function at Cala Murta. Or maybe he had and was hours late because the bus was stuck in a jam as far as the beach.

Once he finally arrived, the minister declared that there is "obvious saturation" and "unprecedented overcrowding". Himself daring to speak of de-growth, Mir was advancing the case for tourism policy that colleagues in Més have also been willing to speak of. Biel Barceló hinted at it, Lluis Apesteguia also has. The tourism minister, Iago Negueruela of PSOE, has made clear that there will be no de-growth. Instead, there will be a decrease. There is a difference, as de-growth implies a general economic philosophy rather than a means of lopping a few thousand off the tourist numbers.

Mir wants a debate, one that had been pushed into the background by Covid. He's not wrong in wanting this. And nor is he wrong in wishing to address the numbers of tourists. In this regard, there are very few who disagree. Even hoteliers like Carmen Riu believe that Mallorca has reached or exceeded its limits. She said a few weeks ago: "I have always defended the necessity to limit tourism. We cannot bring all the people we would like to to Mallorca, as we are talking about a limited territory."

There is widespread acceptance - among political parties, within the business community, and among the general public - that tourism cannot be allowed to continue growing in terms of numbers. But when Miquel Mir says that Mallorca is this summer experiencing "unprecedented overcrowding", is he correct?

He also referred to "negative social perception", and perception is the key. The tourist statistics in fact point to somewhat lower numbers than in 2019. On the roads, meanwhile, aren't there supposed to several thousand fewer hire cars than three years ago?

Two years of Covid, and this summer's tourism has perhaps come as something of a shock. I've myself been willing August to end. But August has always been murder. Or had been until 2020. Perception is all, even if the figures don't fully support the Mir unprecedented analysis, though when the human pressure index for August is available, it may well indicate a mid-August total population for the Balearics above two million, a threshold that was first crossed only a few years ago.

A point is that Mir has got his debate. It has been raging for many a year, variously cultivated by pressure groups and by regular news reports of "massification" or whatever. Regarding the politics, it would be wrong to solely label the left with being in favour of tourist number containment or reduction. When the Partido Popular's Carlos Delgado was tourism minister (and was responsible for the 2012 general tourism law), he dared to contemplate the possibility of reducing numbers.

Although no one has ever specified Mallorca's carrying capacity, there are clear resource issues that are becoming increasingly urgent going forward - water is one. And these resources are factors in what there simply has never been - a proper strategic plan for the island's tourism and which, by extension, would be for the whole economy.

Biel Barceló said the other day it is not realistic to think in terms of substituting an economic model based on tourism with another one, but he added that strategic planning for tourism - planning that looks thirty years into the future - has been missing and that it should have started by now. One day maybe it will.