Friday, February 23, 2024

As it booms big time, where are the critics?

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the final figures for 2023 merely indicated what we had known since the October stats were published – last year was a record year for tourism in the Balearics and by a mile. Or rather, by a million; just under 1.3 million tourists. The wait until the year-end figures were released was merely a case of confirming the size of the record. Now we know for sure.

Where there is surprise lies with the fact that such an astonishing increase should have been greeted with barely a murmur from critics. One might have anticipated that opposition parties would have been howling from rooftops. Over one million more tourists – how can this be sustainable? But no, there has been virtual silence, perhaps recognising that this record owed precious little to the new government or to the new administration at the Council of Mallorca. How could it have done?

If the opposition, who were in office up to a time (June) when it was already evident in which direction 2023’s tourism was travelling, dares to criticise, the Balearic government can simply turn round and say that it was all due to them. An apparently ‘tourismphobic’ government and yet it fostered the growth by adding more than 100,000 registered holiday rental places. This has become the current government’s standard explanation for overtourism, which may be accurate to an extent but can’t really explain the size of last year’s growth, as the total number of accommodation places hasn’t risen since February 2022.

Length of stay was down by 1.9%. Hotel occupancy was up by 2.5%. Both statistics offer some explanation, but are we left to conclude that a sizeable proportion of the 1.3 million were staying in illegal lets? Maybe we are. But if we gloss over this factor, how about a lessening of seasonality? Tourism authorities in the Balearics are congratulating themselves on growth in the low season, while ignoring growth in the high season. However, while it is true that there were increased tourist numbers for every single month of 2023 (compared with 2022), there is also a caveat.

Covid and travel restrictions were still a factor in early 2022. If one therefore compares January and February 2023 with the same months of 2020 (prior to the pandemic), one finds that there were fewer tourists. For March 2023, the same month of 2019 offers a better comparison than 2022; the variation was +17,467. Of six low-season months, only April with 168,433 more tourists than in April 2022 and December (plus 44,253) showed significant rises. Yes, there was some growth for the six months of January, February, March, April, November and December, but it in no way goes near explaining the 1.3 million more for the whole year.

While silence, both government and opposition, has been the conspicuous response to the record year in the Balearics, the Spanish government has been in congratulatory mode. Tourist numbers, just over 85 million for the whole of 2023, were up by 18.7% compared with 2022 and by 1.9% with 2019, which offers the better comparison and was the previous record year.

Tourism minister Jordi Hereu doesn’t wish to make the numbers of tourists “sacred”, preferring to highlight how much tourists spend, but he hasn’t exactly been frowning because of the couple of million more tourists in 2023. Aware, however, that more tourist bodies can provoke tourismphobic sentiment, Hereu has been at pains to stress the need “to govern tourism and to avoid coexistence problems“. This therefore means lessening seasonality and promoting tourist products that are alternative to good old “sun and beach”.

It’s the same stuff as always. The politicians may change, be they in Madrid or in Palma, the political parties can change, but there is no real difference with the messaging. One is inclined to feel that they all talk nonsense. What is governing tourism supposed to mean exactly? Because right now it entails ever more tourists all year round, and Hereu doesn’t envisage this not being the case in 2024. Far from it. “The prospects are that growth will continue this year. It is clear that there will be an increase in the number of tourists and in spending. Unless there is a significant exogenous phenomenon, everything points to 2024 being another record year.”

By implication, bar anything of “exogenous” importance, the same can be said for the Balearics, the region which contributed some 60% of the national growth in tourist numbers in 2023. Hereu doesn’t have a forecast for the whole of 2024 but he does have one up to April – an increase of just under eleven per cent. This will be because of the lessening of seasonality; ah yes, but principally because of Easter.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government is being invited to participate in a weird collaborative venture with Italy in order to develop Mediterranean tourism. What is this? Addressing seasonality is one aspect. Sustainability and enhancing tourist experiences are others. The Italian tourism minister, Daniela Santanchè, believes that by coming together, Italy and Spain plus the likes of Greece, Croatia and Bulgaria will be stronger. What on Earth is she going on about? I’ve no idea, but it probably doesn’t mean fewer tourists.

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