Destination Stewardship Report – Autumn 2020
Among notoriously overtouristed destinations, Spain’s island of Mallorca is striving, if half-heartedly, for a sustainable-tourism reset once the pandemic recedes. Daza Garcia reports that right now, their chances of avoiding errors of the past are encouraging but far from certain.
Can Mallorca Again Be “the Island of Calm,” Even After Tourists Return?
By Daza Garcia
“If you are stunned by the noises that civility entails, … follow me to an island that I will tell you, to an island where there is always calm, where men are never in a hurry, where women never get old, where they don’t waste themselves not even words, where the sun stays longer and Mrs. Moon walks more slowly, infected by laziness.”
—Santiago Rusiñol, Spanish painter and writer (1922).
That was Mallorca in 1922. Largest of the Balearic Islands, which lie in the eastern part of the Spanish Mediterranean, Mallorca has become the preferred summer destination for so large a number of European tourists that it has turned into an example of uncontrolled and unsustainable development. During the summer months pre-pandemic, it was common to find the Son Sant Joan Airport flooded with new tourists, hotels and resorts at almost 100% of capacity, and the beaches and coves crowded with visitors wanting to enjoy its photogenic crystalline waters. In 2017 the Economy Circle of Mallorca – a private institution that conducts debates and studies on economy and society – stated that “There are objective reasons to think that Mallorca is on the way to dying of success due to the massive influx of visitors caused by its unsustainable growth . . . leading to its advanced socioeconomic decline with low-skilled occupations and low wages.” 
Now, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the island has begun to respond, at least partially, to revising some 60 years of tourism practice.
Initially, Mallorca was an island dedicated to agriculture, but in the 60s the tourist boom began, taking advantage of greater international openness in the Franco dictatorship. It was then that the island began to gain relevance at European level. Aside from the pandemic, Mallorca has become one of the most important destinations in Spain. It receives around 12 million tourists annually – for a population of 896,000 inhabitants – and tourism activity generates at least 30% of formal and direct employment in summer months, not including informal or indirect jobs.
It is difficult to provide references to support this kind of information. This figure is provided by the official statistics institution of the Balearic Islands CAIB. Unfortunately, there is no GDP report of the tourism activity after 2014 (and in that year tourism represented 44.8% of the Balearic GDP). Statistics are mainly focused on the Balearic Islands in general and don’t break down percentages for each island. This 30% represents the employees that have a formal contract, pay taxes and are directly related to tourism (such as accommodation, food and beverage, and transport). It does not include informal jobs, which can be hard to track, and other indirect jobs (shops, agriculture, etc.).
Traditionally, Mallorca has been a destination focused on “sun and beach” and later – since the 1980s and reinforced in the early 2000s – on “party and drink.” Both occur in the summer months at saturation levels, causing congestion on highways, rising rental prices and housing costs, gentrification, and problems in waste management.
All this has generated some discontent among Mallorcans. According to a report made by Fundación Gadeso, “82% consider that the island suffers saturation, and 74% affirm that as a consequence there is an abusive consumption of resources: water, energy and garbage collection.” Residents complain of the aforementioned issues and include the increase of precarious and temporary jobs, inability to buy a home, and uncontrolled environmental wear. Moreover, overtourism due to massive numbers of cruise passengers reached the point where, in July 2019, 11,000 signatures were collected from residents who demanded that cruise arrivals should be limited to one per day.
Until now some of the broad measures that had been taken to combat saturation include application of a “sustainable tourism tax” (since 2016 dedicated to environmental issues and tourism projects), greater control of licenses for vacation rentals such as by Airbnb, limitations on the use of alcohol in party areas, and stricter sanctions for those who do not comply.
By contrast, the pandemic summer atmosphere of 2020 made an impression on both national tourists and residents: half-capacity hotels, clear beaches, fewer traffic jams, less crowded party areas, and even shopping streets as popular as “la Calle del Dolar” (Dollar Street) in Alcudia with a large number of businesses closed in early July.
Mallorca’s New Strategic Tourism Plans
The arrival of the coronavirus together with the expiration of the old Strategic Tourism Plan of Mallorca 2017-2020 motivated the island’s government to consider new concerns when designing the new destination strategy. Thus, in June of this year the Council of Mallorca approved the Strategic Tourism Plan for Mallorca 2020-2023, which had been in development since 2019, together with a Postcovid Tourism Reactivation Plan that prioritizes some actions from the Strategic Plan to help the sector recover. The Reactivation Plan simply adapts the Strategic Plan to this crisis, and its only purpose is to improve the perception of destination safety to attract tourists and recover tourism activity in upcoming months. It does not address overtourism.
Both plans have been developed by the Fundació Mallorca Turisme, which is a 100% public entity supported by an Advisory Council that includes agents from the private sector, such as the Mallorca Hotel Federation and the Chamber of Commerce. The new Strategic Plan arose from collaboration between public and private sectors, including 17 sessions held to analyze Mallorca’s current situation and determine what strategic lines to develop. City councils from different municipalities on the island participated, along with chambers of commerce, representatives of business associations (hotels, travel agencies), and panels of experts. Notably, no citizen participation nor public consultation was carried out during these consultations.
The Strategic Plan is based on four fundamental pillars:
- the strengthening of the image of the destination,
- transformation toward a “smart destination.”
Of these pillars, strengthening and sustainability strategies tackle in a general way the issue of overtourism. The first objective of strengthening the destination image is to boost the Mallorca brand and unlink it from a reputation for low-cost mass tourism products such as beach-and-beer holidays. Proposed actions would support mechanisms that regulate and control tourist accommodation, carry out an audit of the image of Mallorca’s tourist brand, and develop a repositioning campaign to emphasize other tourist products such as culture, sports, ecotourism, MICE, or film tourism.
As for sustainability, the plan would introduce measures aimed at protecting the destination, its resources, and the territory as a whole from mass tourism and its effects. Some of the proposals to achieve this goal include:
- Reducing the promotion of “sun and beach” without neglecting it,
- Creating new sustainable tourist routes – ecotourism, agrotourism, gastronomic tourism – to extend the season,
- Developing promotional actions to decongest the areas with the highest tourist influx,
- Creating an app that will inform of the places free of saturation and that comply with the necessary sanitary security measures,
- Implementing the UNWTO.QUEST quality certificate for the first time in a European destination,
- Creating an ethnographic atlas of Mallorca and updating its map of handicrafts, and
- Improving management of water and plastics in the hotel sector.
Despite all these measures, the Strategic Plan doesn’t address or provide solutions to the constant complaints from the local population regarding cruise ships and the number of passengers who disembark each day. However, in July 2019, a representative of the government of Palma met with the president of the Port Authority of the Balearic Islands to request their collaboration in jointly limiting the arrival of cruise ships. Currently, the government of the Balearic Islands is working on a new regulation to control the number of berths in high season in the ports of the islands, including the port of Palma. Likewise, the Port Authority is currently finishing up its own Strategic Plan, expected to include Balearic government guidelines in cruise management. At the moment, berthing reservations for 2021 are maintained and those that apply for 2022 will not be approved automatically. Instead, they will be registered and await the regulation prepared by the government to limit the number of stopovers and passengers.
A Complementary Plan to Combat Saturation
Apart from this Strategic Plan to be implemented in the coming months, in July of this year a new plan called PIAT (Intervention Plan in Tourist Areas of Mallorca) was approved. Started in 2018, it was promoted by the Council of Mallorca to regulate the territorial, environmental, and landscape dimensions of tourism planning in the island. The PIAT in effect establishes a system of tourist zones based on resource carrying capacity and tourist saturation and maturity levels. The plan develops different measures, improvements, and accommodation limits according to the needs of each type of zone – tourist areas, residential areas, or rustic land.
Through the PIAT, the local government made a pioneering decision in Spain to reduce the number of accommodation units on the island.
Through the PIAT, the local government made a pioneering decision in Spain to reduce the number of accommodation units on the island from 550,000 to 430,000 to combat saturation – 315,000 for hotel accommodations and 115,000 for tourist rentals. The 120,000-unit difference will be eliminated by attrition as their licenses expire. Also, any offers of new short-term rentals are prohibited in tourist-saturated areas of the island such as S’Arenal, Magaluf, Palmanova, or S’illot, and any existing vacation rental will be allowed to offer its services only 60 days per year, of which only 30 can be in a summer month. An area is considered saturated if it either exceeds the maximum tourist offer limit established by the PIAT or has environmental problems caused by high demand.
On the plus side, both the Strategic Plan and the PIAT propose to enhance the island’s local culture, gastronomy, and agricultural traditions. In Mallorca, agriculture has been losing weight since the tourist boom to the point that today, “between 70% and 80% of the agri-food products consumed in the Balearic Islands come from outside,” according to the geographer Iván Murray for Diario de Mallorca (2020). The size of the island makes it unfeasible to supply the entire resident population plus more than 10 million tourists a year. In order to preserve agricultural traditions, the PIAT establishes a series of conditions to regulate agritourism and rural hotels – controlling the granting of new permits as long as certain parameters are met such as use of space, age of the main building, limit of places, among others. The PIAT also supports creation of a network of interpretation centers to allow a better understanding of the island’s relation to agriculture. Similarly, the Strategic Plan foresees the creation of ecotourism, gastronomic and agritourism routes, and participation in the product club “Taste Spain” to reinforce local cultural identity linked to agriculture.
In conclusion, the challenge now is to verify to what extent these new measures will be applied on an island whose economy is highly dependent on tourism. Low visitor levels this past summer leave many businesses desperate to return to “normal” and get the tourism industry back on track.
I think both plans show certain limitations. On one hand, the PIAT proposes some first steps towards controlling overtourism, since it finally defines which areas of the island are tourist-saturated and establishes limitations on expanding tourist accommodation. However, several actors have criticized this plan, such as political parties, the Balearic Islands Tourist Rental (HABTUR) and the ecologist groups GOB and Terraferida. Among their complaints: The accommodation limit is higher than the previous one, the plan commodifies the island resources, and the PIAT favors hotels over vacation rentals, thereby preventing real distribution of wealth among Mallorcans unable to rent their homes for tourist use.
As for the Strategic Plan, it gives in my opinion great importance to promotion and commercialization of new tourist products intended to reduce saturation by broadening seasonal demand, but it lacks more forceful actions when it comes to avoiding overtourism. In this sense, both plans represent an important initiative in the quest to reduce overtourism but they don’t seem to fully complement each other as a whole tourism strategy. Perhaps it will become necessary to combine these stricter regulations with less commercialization of the product. As things stand, the government of Mallorca’s Strategic Tourism Plan 2020-2023 seems to want more to boost tourist numbers out of season than to redistribute the usual overload in season. Tackling Mallorca’s saturation issues requires actually reducing the number of tourists concentrated in summer.