Playa de Palma in the summer. | Anja Schmidt


Month after month this year we have seen the tourist numbers grow. In early September, I assessed the situation as had been reached by July. "If the trend up to July this year continues, the annual record is not only going to be beaten, it is going to be obliterated." I wasn't wrong.

I never subscribed for one moment to a view that 2023 would in some way be less than a very good year. All talk about prices and competitor destinations dimming prospects was misplaced - as it has so often been in the past. The history of tourism in Mallorca and the Balearics in the twenty-first century has been one of talk of exactly the same price and competition dynamics. And it has consistently been proven to be wrong.

When the ecotax was introduced in 2002, the hoteliers voiced their concerns about the tax but nevertheless came out with precisely the same stuff as they do nowadays. The islands do not compete on price. The islands have to bet on quality, on reputation, on loyalty, on security.

A difference to twenty years ago is that the bet on quality has become evident. The numbers of three and four-star hotels have been totally reversed in favour of the latter, while five-star, rare back then, has grown. It's not to say that there may not come a point when price and competition forces do lead to a downward trend, but 2023 has shown that they haven't played a part. So much so that I'm staggered by quite how much the tourist numbers have risen this year.

The low season isn't really a great indicator, but January, February and March this year all pointed to something unusual - an unusually high level of growth. This has been maintained for the whole year, or at least up to October, which is the month for which we have figures. The bombshell of October was that the cumulative number of tourists for the year was not only higher than for the whole of 2018 (the record year), it had eclipsed 2018 by almost 700,000.

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At 17.24 million tourists in the Balearics for the ten months (11.96 million in Mallorca, almost one million more than 2022), the possibility exists that the whole year might get close to 18 million; in November and December 2022 there were some 530,000 tourists. Eighteen million, that's a hell of a figure. Twenty years ago there were 10.26 million; ten years ago, 13 million.

Setting aside 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, growth from 2013 appeared to have reached a sort of plateau. There were fewer tourists in 2019. Not by much, but the number was nevertheless down. In 2022, the total was very similar to 2019 - lower by only around 400 - and the then tourism minister, Iago Negueruela, was almost self-congratulatory in having presided over a lower number. Yes, but he ignored the fact that Covid had still been an issue at the start of 2022. Without those restrictions, 2022 would quite probably have been an all-time record year.

It has been said often enough that pent-up demand for holidays and savings made because of the pandemic produced the level of tourism there was in 2022. For 2023, some reckoned that the post-pandemic dynamic would run out of steam. The same is being said for 2024. We'll see, but in the meantime, how does one explain the growth in 2023? It has been exceptional.

Maybe there has been residual post-pandemic demand, but otherwise it is the case that far from tourist numbers being somehow and magically redistributed to months other than the high-summer season, they have increased for every month. The new Partido Popular government seems to share the previous government's hope in this redistribution. The hoteliers do as well. But this hasn't happened. Yes, there has been a slight fall in the average length of stay, which could indicate more tourists because of availability, but I'm more inclined to believe that the real clue as to growth is buried in the figures for type of accommodation.

It's hard to get an exact picture for this because statistical criteria have changed, but now there are figures which clearly distinguish between what is termed 'market accommodation' and 'non-market accommodation'. The latter includes people's properties - second homes used not just by owners but also by family and friends. It is also a reference to unregulated accommodation. Of the 17.24 million visitors up to end-October, 2.98 million stayed in non-market accommodation, 898,000 of whom were in people's own properties, an astonishing number in itself when one thinks about it.

Is this the prime reason for the growth? It is certainly a figure that cannot be ignored, and my guess is that even if the current government is publicly joyous (not that it has done anything to create this growth), it may well be privately concerned. Such numbers of tourists this year are bound to further fuel the debate about sustainability, and a potential 1.5 million more for the whole year really should exercise minds, especially if it is growth on account of a lack of regulation.