Iago Negueruela is not only the Balearic Minister for Tourism, his portfolio also includes employment and work, not to mention being the government spokesperson. All of these responsibilities are very closely interlinked, with tourism being the foundation stone for the region’s economy and employment market. So, quite naturally, tourism has been, and still very much is, top of the agenda.
Needless to say, in such a fluid environment the tourism protocol is changing on a daily basis. The minister spoke to the Bulletin on Thursday morning, just hours before the UK’s double-jab scheme was confirmed. There was no denying that it was going to come as a relief.
However, no sooner had the UK opened the travel gates to the Balearics and the rest of Europe, than Germany and France adopted a totally different approach towards Spain and the islands because of the recent rise in the number of Covid cases.
That said, Negueruela was keen to stress that, despite the increase in Covid cases, the pressure on the health service is still extremely low, with very few Covid patients in intensive care or on hospital wards. That, he said, is what we all need to be looking at instead of the case rate.
“We have been working extremely hard throughout the pandemic with the British Embassy in Madrid and the government in London. We’ve constantly kept them up to speed on Covid in the Balearics and how we’ve handled it. Everyone involved has done an extremely good job.
“That is why we were the only destination in Spain to be put on the green watch list by the British government. Now, the double-jab scheme is going to be a game changer whether the Balearics is moved to amber at the next traffic light or not."
He was also quick to defend the slow rollout of the vaccine in the Balearics. “The main reason the Balearics did not receive as many doses as it would have liked to start with was because the programme began with focus on the elderly. The Balearics has one of the youngest populations in Spain, so larger amounts were distributed to other regions first.
“However, as we’ve progressed with the vaccination programme, we’ve picked up a lot of speed and we are the first region to have started vaccinating 16 year-olds and students, so we’re well up to speed and that’s very important.
“Getting young people vaccinated as quickly as possible is now the key to combating Covid because, despite high case levels, it will enable us to continue easing the pressure on the health service and that, as I’ve said, is paramount. This is what governments should be looking at. Perhaps we all need to alter the way we gauge the Covid pandemic, base our actions on different data - give greater emphasis to hospital figures as opposed to cases.”
The minister, however, is far from impressed with the fallout from the influx of Spanish students on summer breaks to the islands, which is being blamed for the current spike.
“The main problem is that these trips are organised by private companies so, as a regional government, we don’t have the powers to stop them. It has to be a national decision. But, as far as I am concerned, I never want to see student breaks again. They do nothing for the local economy or society and that is something we will be looking at in the future. The illegal parties, etc. all put an extra strain on our human resources and damage our image.”
The minister also denied that the British are being “victimised” by the introduction of new rules against the purchase of alcohol, etc.
“When the British were not here and the Germans were, we were focused on ensuring law and order was observed in resorts such as Arenal and Playa de Palma. Now that the British are coming, we have simply tightened up, or rather reminded key resorts of what rules and regulations were introduced last year to stamp out antisocial behaviour. Tourism of excesses (booze tourism) is not going to be tolerated.
But we’re not singling out the British; not by any means. The latest restrictions are a message to everyone - Germans, Britons, Spaniards, Mallorcans, wherever they come from - that society wants people to behave like they would at home. You don’t trash where you live, so don’t come and trash Mallorca. On the contrary, in association with the British government and other foreign bodies, we’re looking out for the well-being of visitors to the Balearics. We want people to enjoy their holidays to the full in a safe environment, and the Balearics is the safest destination in the Mediterranean right now, especially with regard to Covid.
“The British have been flooding in since we were put on the green watch list and now the double-jab has sparked another surge in bookings. We’re looking forward to welcoming the British back, just like every tourist who comes to the Balearics.
“We are a world-leading destination and intend to continue to be so. If you had told me back in February or March that 80 per cent of hotels would be open by the start of July, I would not have believed you. But demand has outstripped all expectations and the Balearic tourist industry was ready to respond. The hotels were prepared, as was the whole tourist supply chain. Everything is opening up and hopefully we can enjoy a busy and long season.
“The pandemic has been a period of reflection for the Balearic industry as a whole as well as for the ministry for tourism, but we’ve been planning the future model for tourism for years now. Our main focus is to take the emphasis away from the three months of peak season - June, July and August. We need to have a more sustainable industry which is based on a much longer season with people coming throughout the year as opposed to coming en masse in the middle of the summer. It places a great strain on the environment and our natural resources and upsets the social status quo.
“That is one of the reasons we have been working on staggering cruise ship visits, for example. They are an important cog in the tourism wheel but we can't have tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers disembarking in Palma at the same time. The city’s infrastructure can’t cope, it’s uncomfortable for the local community and also clashes with other visitors who have come for a relaxing break in the capital.
“It’s all about finding the right balance and we’ve been working on that for a long time now, long before the pandemic. But Covid has brought many other factors to our attention and, with the cooperation of the tourist industry and society as a whole, we intend to get it right and make sure that we can all benefit to the very maximum from everything the Balearics has to offer.
“Another example is how holiday habits have changed. We’ve seen a marked increase in demand for holiday rentals and yacht charters because people still want to holiday in their bubbles. Great, what better way to spend a holiday than on a yacht cruising round the Balearics? The nautical sector is also extremely important to the local economy and employment.
“These are all factors which we are going to have to take into account moving forward as we continue to improve what the Balearics has to offer the millions of tourists who visit the islands ever year.
“But in so doing, we have to learn to live together in a sustainable environment. Climate change is also going to dictate the path we take in the future as well. Rising sea levels, the changing climate; all these things have to be taken into account, and the Balearics is again leading by example.”