Germany tourists arriving at Palma airport. | Ruiz Collado

The travel association ABTA has reported that many of its travel agent and tour operator members registered “record-breaking” sales of 2023 foreign holidays in January. In Germany, an analytics tool, the Midoco Travel Index, indicates the same. The Mallorca Hoteliers Federation, having recognised that the economic situation isn’t exactly favourable, has also said that demand for the first quarter of this year is positive, and the federation was specifically referring to the German market, as it is this market - for foreign tourism - that counts between January and March.

Evidence from the UK and Germany suggests that cost of living is not deterring holiday bookings. These may be for shorter duration than previously and there may also be an increased demand for all-inclusive (to aid holidaymaker budgeting), but the holidays are being booked nonetheless. The ABTA and Midoco findings are, it has to be stressed, general. They are not specific to Mallorca or the Balearics, but one can infer from them that demand for the island is not in retreat. If this is indeed the case, then what might this mean for the final balance at the end of 2023? Might the 16,475,579 total number of tourists in 2022 be exceeded? At present, it is looking as if this may well prove to be the case.

The total in 2022, as tourism minister Iago Negueruela was keen to point out last week, was lower than the total in pre-pandemic 2019. Yes, and by all of 397 fewer; neither here nor there. It was also lower than in 2018, the all-time record year. The 76,000 difference compared with 2022 was more meaningful, but perhaps we (and the minister) might consider that 2018 could well have been exceeded.

The first quarter of 2022 was marked by lingering Covid restrictions and a consequent reduction in supply - flights, for example. Between January and March, the Balearics attracted 810,273 tourists. In 2019 the figure was 1,098,439 - a difference of 288,166; in 2018 it was 1,050,443 (240,170 difference). Had either of these differences even been halved, 2022 could conceivably have produced a record annual total.

Negueruela wished to highlight the importance of a 2022 total that was lower than 2019 and 2018. But he did so without offering the possible context of early-2022 Omicron. Why was he so interested in pointing to these lower figures? It’s a good question, the answer to which lies with a muddle of his own creation, one that appeared to get the government into a bit of a flap and that only became more of a muddle when the minister sought to extricate himself from it.

Semantics and a touch of arithmetic have characterised all this. Whereas the minister has chosen to round down the 2022 total to 16.4 million, others, including myself, have rounded up to 16.5 million. Why should this matter? It doesn’t, other than that the 16.4 million serves as a lower figure for commencing the explanation that Negueuela “never” said that 16.4 million was “a limit for the government”.

It’s true. He didn’t say this. He didn’t speak of a cap or a ceiling, because it would have been folly for him to have done so. The government cannot impose a limit as it doesn’t have the means to control the entry of people to the Balearics. There is some room for manoeuvre, as demonstrated with limiting vehicles in Formentera, but otherwise the government can do nothing about the number of flights and ferries to the airports and the main ports. At best, therefore, a government desire for a limit - not that the minister spoke of one - is a sort of wishful thinking that might one day be fulfilled by having co-management of points of entry.

Where it can influence numbers is by addressing the number of accommodation places, which is what is being done. To quote the minister last week - “We are clear that we have to reduce places because the Balearic Islands is a region that has full occupancy for practically six months a year and, given this situation, does not need more tourists or more places.”

This was just one statement which added to the muddle. No, Negueruela had not said that the 16.4 million was a limit, but he had said - as he was to clarify - that “last year’s figures should not be exceeded and that it would be necessary to analyse how to reduce the arrival of visitors to the Balearic Islands”. Clarify? “Should not be exceeded” implies a limit, whether this was stated or not; there’s the semantics.

He then added, feeding the narrative to which we have become accustomed, that tourists in the Balearics should be analysed “by month”. In many months the islands have been “stressed”, so there is work for where this happens for a “reduction in the number of visitors”. Essentially, this was a reminder of a desire to somehow redistribute some of the summer mass to lower-season months. Even so, we have to come back to “should not be exceeded”.

I understand that the government might get the jitters if talk of limits were to be translated by a foreign redtop pack as, for instance, ‘Mallorca (Balearics) don’t want any more tourists’, which would then be further misinterpreted as ‘Mallorca doesn’t want you’. There was, after all, the business of how the Council of Mallorca’s director of tourism promotion was apparently misquoted at the WTM fair in London in November. There is sensitivity, and I get that, but perhaps the latest episode stresses the need (again) for absolute clarity and purpose of communication.