A hotel in El Arenal.

A hotel in El Arenal.

11-07-2000A. SEPULVEDA

The hotel room didn't have a sea view. It didn't have much of a view at all. Had the room looked out over the sea, I could have seen the bay of Palma. This was in Arenal fifty years ago. As it was, when I looked out, what did I see behind this hotel?

Back home, before we moved and aspired to be posh, there had been the estate. It was one of those post-war London overspill estates. It was "council". Local opinion was that the inner lands of the estate were like the Wild West. Some of the houses looked rough - were rough - and there was the green, which every now and then acquired occupants: gypsies. The inner estate had created its own class within a class. These were the "poor".

Poverty was something which existed in Dickens films and television adaptations. It otherwise didn't enter the awareness, except through the occasional visions of the estate's badlands. But the estate was inadequate preparation for what was hidden away in Arenal, obscured from the promenade by the hotel, an edifice replete with what seemed like luxury. The pool sparkled with a blueness and vitality that had been previously unimaginable. Blue like that was the blue of an exotic other world, and Arenal was another world. Yet there was a further world, one of total contradiction that lay behind. From that hotel room, all I remember seeing was a series of shanties.

There were four or five. They were makeshift, improvised. There was nothing constructed about them, and among their occupants were children, no older than I was. The memory of that holiday is still strong, but there remains no more enduring image than that of the shanties. Temporary though it was, poverty was my backyard, and it was more immediate than anything that the estate had to offer.

Who were the people who lived in those shanties? It is quite possible that they were gypsies, although at the end of the sixties and at the start of the seventies, the gypsy shanties - the "filthy shacks", as one commentator has described them - were mostly to be found in the Amanecer and Molinar neighbourhoods of Palma. Son Banya was to be a solution; it was intended to be a provisional solution. The aim was to allow better homes than those made of wood, tin and cardboard; tin was what I recall most about those Arenal shanties.

Good intentioned though it was, Son Banya - as has been admitted - was an experiment that went wrong. But the rights or otherwise of having created Son Banya and of all that was to eventually follow are not what concerns me here, except by association with the impression left on me by those Arenal shanties. It is an impression that has never faded and which has always been one hard to reconcile.

The hotel, as I say, was like luxury, and so it would have been, because Majorca was like luxury. In truth, it would have been no more than bog standard for the time, as luxury set its bar only so low for accommodating the mass that was now descending on the island each summer. It was an imagined luxury of mandated room sizes and facilities to welcome holidaymakers, for whom the price of the packages was accessible - the holidaymakers who weren't from the badlands of estates.

Over the decades, luxury has come to mean just that. Or, as was said at a gathering in Port Adriano the other day, it is now "premium". Covid, it was observed, has highlighted the Balearic tourism industry's ability to adapt to a situation that was inconceivable just a year ago, and in this Covid (or post-Covid) environment, the industry needs to commit itself to "premium": not as massive, consuming fewer resources, more sustainable and generating greater wealth.

Yes, the wealth, as Covid is also creating a dynamic that it is perfectly conceivable - that of less wealth and of greater poverty. The argument is and always has been that wealth (in the sense of having incomes) is distributed by tourism of whatever standard. It is a true argument, but it is one that stubbornly disregards the levels of poverty and the undeniable fact that much employment is low paid. Luxury or premium, can the type of commitment being called for reverse a societal fact that has existed for fifty years? There is far more wealth broadly spread as a consequence of tourism, but will a transformational model predicated on luxury or premium bring about an improved balance to society?

Somehow, I don't think so. The shanties of Son Banya are being pulled down - not that all its residents were exactly in penury because of their trade - but this eradication is symbolic. A different form of eradication is required, because as the new luxury and premium entices its temporary occupants of palaces with blueness, sparkle and vitality that are ever more unimaginable, if these occupants don't have a sea view, they could well imagine what lies behind.

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