Mallorca Tries to Tame Tourism

? 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.

Capdepera lighthouse, Mallorca. Photo: MarciMarc

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.” [1]

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.[2]

Image from EXCELTUR, based on reports from the different regions of Spain in a period that ranges from 2007 to 2018 (Empleo=employment; PIB=GDP).

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.”[3] 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.

Beachgoers enjoy Cala del Moro (Moro’s Cove), Mallorca. Photo: 4634656 Pixabay

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,
  • innovation,
  • sustainability,
  • 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.

Almonds, olives, and olive oil number among Mallorca’s food products. Photo: Inproperstyle.

My Take

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.

[1] Hosteltur, 2017
[2], 2019
[3] Diario de Mallorca, 2017

Advice for a Basque Destination

[Above: Gaztelugatxeko Doniene hermitage sits on an islet on Urdaibai’s Bay of Biscay coast. All photos courtesy Urdaibai Magazine.]

How should undiscovered coastal destinations handle tourism?

Earlier this year, Urdaibai Magazine, based in the Basque country of Spain, interviewed Destination Stewardship Center director Jonathan Tourtellot about how to build  responsible tourism activity in this coastal region containing the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. With permission, we present an English-language version of that interview. The answers could apply to any seaside destination that is seeking a better approach to tourism. You can read the original, in either Basque or Spanish here.

Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984, Urdaibai, northeast of Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay (Bizkaia in Basque) combines a maritime and rural environment with deep cultural traditions. The place is striving to be one where “humans and nature coexist in a framework of respect and sustainable development.” The interview follows.

  1. Urdaibai Magazine: What are the global challenges facing tourism today ?

Jonathan Tourtellot: Overtourism, climate change, and a decision-making mindset that assesses tourism value only in terms of industry transactions—money—with little if any regard to the quality and character of the destinations on which tourism depends.

Urdaibai’s marshes and estuary form core of the Biosphere Reserve.

  1. U.M.: What basic measures do you think should be taken by a small and still underdeveloped tourism territory, as is the case of Urdaibai’s Biosphere Reserve, to integrate tourism activity in a sustainable way?

J.T.: Measure tourism success in terms of value, not volume: Value in terms not only of revenue, but how well tourism benefits are shared by the community and how well they help preserve the natural and cultural heritage that visitors are coming to experience. Invite the kinds of tourism that bring other benefits to the community as well, from education and volunteer help to philanthropy and appropriate business development. Do not measure success just by number of tourist arrivals. That’s quantity, not quality.

  1. U.M.: In order for the tourism to be an activity with a positive impact on the population and the territory, what kind of actions should we avoid when planning our tourism promotion and promotion strategy? What could we regret?

J.T.: Well, let’s look at what not to do! Avoid developing look-alike tourism resorts, hotels, and attractions that could be seen anywhere. Generic facilities are a good way to attract generic tourists—people who seek only better weather than they have back home and who will happily go elsewhere if another destination offers the same thing cheaper.

Everything developed for tourism should reflect distinctive aspects of Urdaibai, or Euskadi, or Spain (in descending order of importance). That mix of authenticity can provide tourists with a rich experience that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. What’s more, revenues from visitors who are sincerely interested in the Urdaibai area will benefit local people and encourage them to protect of the natural and cultural heritage upon which their income depends.

  1. U.M.: You are the creator of a concept as attractive as “geotourism”: the geographical tourism, which could be interpreted today as a paradigm of sustainable tourism. How do you define geotourism? In this context, what should be the tourist’s attitude to make their impact positive and to help ensure that tourism does not become a global problem?

J.T.: The definition of geotourism as we put forth via the National Geographic Society is “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” Our research shows that people interested in those things—“geotravelers”—stay longer and spend more than the average tourist.

An aside: An alternate, much narrower definition of “geotourism” focusing explicitly on geology has gained traction in connection with the international geoparks movement. While clearly different, the two usages are compatible and complementary. In terms of tourism quality, each adds interest to the other, as set forth in the Arouca Declaration (downloadable in four languages) made in 2011 at the International Geotourism Congress in that Portuguese city.—J.T.

If you’re a traveler with a geotouristic attitude, you want your presence to help enhance a place rather than degrade it. The simplest way to do this is to support the businesses that support the quality of the place—businesses that not only practice basic sustainability but also showcase the nature and culture of the place. Spend your money there, not with an international franchise hotel or eatery just like the ones back home. Each Euro you spend is like a vote. Support variety, not sameness. You’ll have a richer trip and take home more memories.

Santimamiñe cave drawings in Kortezubi, Urdaibai date from more than 12,000 years ago.

And of course, you need to be a responsible visitor and encourage the same behavior in others: Recycle your trash if possible, respect local culture, and treat historic sites with care. And do put away that selfie stick. Sure, take a couple of shots of yourselves, but then turn the camera instead toward the place and what it has to offer. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? If you’re visiting just to prove you have been to one more destination, you’re no geotraveler, just a selfie narcissist taking up space and adding to the overtourism problem. Instead, learn everything you can and tell the people back home about it. Put those things on Instagram and Youtube, rather than your own face.

  1. U.M.: Compatibility: Is tourism interested in the culture, historical heritage, the character of the territory, its natural environment, and the peculiarities of the societies it visits—is such tourism compatible with what is understood as “the tourism industry”?

J.T.: Yes and no. Yes, if “industry” is defined as any business that relies mainly on tourism, then it certainly is part of the industry.

This open-air Erregelak dance is one of numerous traditional Basque dances.

No, if it is mass tourism, high on volume and low on value per tourist footprint. What’s more, destinations catering to mass tourism tend to repel the tourists with the geotourism array of interests. Crammed beaches, amusement parks, and lots of T-shirt shops are not what they are looking for.

  1. U.M.: As certifications for quality, process, origin, etc. gain importance in all areas of society, do you consider it necessary for destinations obtain tourism certifications of sustainability and commitment to the environment?

J.T.: Certifications or ratings (my preference) help, partly to differentiate yourselves from those destinations that care nothing about sustainability, partly to encourage any less-motivated stakeholders within your own destination, and partly to monitor your own progress.

  1. U.M.: The National Geographic Society has been a pioneer and a world reference in the dissemination of natural wealth, culture, heritage and science and of the combination of these disciplines with travel and adventure, coming to create a style, a way of seeing the world. From your perspective as a representative for sustainable destinations, what do you think is the role of the specialized press in the development of respectful, integrated, and non-invasive tourism?

J.T.: Travel media have a variety of ways they can improve the conduct of tourism. It’s better to honestly inform than promote. If you do a good job as a travel journalist, the story you tell and show your public will do the promotion job for you. Increasingly, media need to encourage alternative destinations and sites—some media have already started doing this—to avoid overcrowding the famous places. Media need to encourage responsible travel and do the same with their advertisers. Even more than other specialties, travel media are notoriously close to their advertisers, a reality forced by the expensive economics of travel. Now, media may need to help educate their advertisers in how to promote destinations, tours, and accommodations more responsibly. Better to take focus off of generic resorts and golf courses and encourage advertisers instead to focus on the unique characteristics of the destination they are marketing.


Trading Languages for Travel

[Above: Talktalkbnb website image. Photos by Eugene Kim.]

Home Sharing for Language Learners

For about 3 weeks, I talked my way through a unique and affordable travel experience, having access to another culture and language first-hand and truly living like a local. During those three weeks, I got acquainted with the Spanish legal system, Madrid’s hipster lifestyle, and the secret to making the best gazpacho. The experience also confirmed some beliefs about the best ways to save the places we love.

How? Three words (or maybe just one): TalkTalkBnB.

TalkTalkBnB is a free platform (unaffiliated with Airbnb or any other travel site) that allows residents to “learn languages at home while hosting native speakers” and allows travelers “free accommodation worldwide while practicing your language with locals.” I had stumbled upon the site in May, while looking for a change of pace from my living situation in Madrid and saving a bit for upcoming travels.

Talk Your Way Around the World

Hosts and guests mutually agree on length of the stay and conditions such as provision of meals and the frequency and length of conversation practice. So despite the platform being free to use, it’s not quite free accommodation. Your time is the currency that pays for it. In my case, I could offer Spanish speakers some practice in English.

“So it’s couchsurfing, but for language practice,” summarized a friend. Exactly. Having enjoyed the cross-cultural exchanges and friendships made over the years through couchsurfing, I decided to give TalkTalkBnB a try. For me, a huge part of the appeal was in getting to know locals and having a cultural exchange. It would be my final three weeks working in Madrid and a final impression of the city.

My neighbor, the Supreme Court of Spain

A Matching Service

The site works as a directory, listing profiles of people from around the world and giving proactive, independent travelers and language learners the information they need to make arrangements for staying or hosting.  It is up to you, the traveler or host, to not only create your profile, but to search for and reach out to those you’d like to stay with or host. Profiles should have photos, basic information about the host or traveler, languages spoken (along with a self-assessment of proficiency), and travel or hosting details. For the experienced user of the site, one should also have references from others – guests or hosts – met through the site. References, however, were rare. Of all the hosts I contacted, only two had references. Although the site has been around since 2015, it’s still very much under the popular radar.

Part of my TalkTalkBnb profile.

As I searched the profiles of 138 Madrid hosts, I narrowed down my list of prospective hosts to about 11, based on the language they were most interested in learning, background, interests, possible length of stay, and proximity to public transit.

Within a week of reaching out to the 11, I was pleasantly surprised to have two responses. I met with both sets of potential hosts (each a couple who were fairly fluent in English and with whom I felt comfortable). I began to think of them not just as potential hosts, but potential housemates—people who I would have daily interactions with and, I hoped, befriend. Using TalkTalkBnB as a housemate matching service rather than a formal guest/host arrangement helped make my experience a more relaxed and rewarding one. I could really get to know a place and its people, rather than just trading preset language-learning hours in exchange for a place to sleep while visiting typical tourist attractions. I planned on giving just as much of myself to the people I’d stay with as they gave to me.

Three weeks after creating my TalkTalkBnB profile, my search was over. My new housemates? Sara and Fernando (or Fer), a husband and wife lawyer couple and their Jack Russell/Bodequero terrier, Lola. Although they hadn’t hosted before and lacked references, I immediately felt at ease during our first meeting. In true Spanish fashion, we stopped by a couple of different bars, lingering at each to enjoy good food and good conversation. At our second stop, a Basque bar and eatery, Sara and Fer introduced me to the guindilla pepper and to gilda, a pintxo (a Basque-type tapa) made with olives, guindillas, anchovies, and miniature pickles. It was to be my first in a series of lessons about Spanish culture. By the end of the evening, we had agreed that I would be their first TalkTalkBnB housemate for three weeks in June.

Nervous for the move-in (Lola capturing my mood)

Move-in day included a welcome meal (homemade burgers and some wine from Gailicia) and an invitation to a poetry reading, courtesy of Sara and Fer. Throughout my stay, I got to enjoy home cooking and plenty of good conversation. From music to politics, food to family life, the legal world and Spanish slang, we conversed in English over numerous lunches and dinners and whenever each of our busy schedules allowed.

And because the arrangement was more housemate-style than guest-host, cultural exchange came about more naturally. Not only did my new housemates offer to cook (showing me, for example, how a particular spice smoothed out gazpacho), I did as well, introducing them to Korean food, American banana bread, and other foods less familiar to the Spanish palate. And without any pressure to spend a set amount of time with each other, conversations never felt forced.

Sara and Fer being introduced to Korean food by the author.

My accommodations included a private bedroom and bathroom and access to the common spaces of a beautiful apartment at the confluence of two desirable neighborhoods, hipster Malasana and the gayborhood of Chueca. Having reached near peak gentrification, these neighborhoods were stuffed with quirky bars (serving everything from mezcal to vermouth), cool cafes with cold brew, restaurants ranging from Asian street food to traditional Spanish, markets with rooftop bars, artsy boutiques, and vintage stores. When I wasn’t exploring these neighborhoods or talking with my laid back, kind, and flexible housemates, I could afford to take short trips around Spain.

A Model That’s Good for Destinations

Weekend visit to Peñas de Riglos in Huesca, Spain.

As a traveler staying with locals, I learned about lesser known events and places. For example, Sara and Fer would tell me about different music festivals in Spain, ones in cities less popular and touristy than Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. In turn, I would tell them about places that I’d come across in my travels around Spain. During one weekend, for instance, I traveled to Peñas de Riglos in the northeastern province of Huesca, a mecca for hikers, climbers, and white water rafters.  As my housemates had never been there, I was happy to share tips and photos with them for their future visit.

In that way, TalkTalkBnB works well for local economies. For rural communities that are tourism-dependent, like Peñas de Riglos, this word of mouth advertising provides a boost for businesses and events off the radar for many out-of-town visitors, whether for a coffee shop or a local festival.  And it allows locals a chance to find out what’s beyond their towns by hearing tales from their new-found traveler-friends.

Even farmers can benefit. While tourism often involves frequenting local eateries, it can also involve home cooking, which means shopping at local grocers, who in turn support local farmers.  For example, as someone who likes to cook, I often seek out local markets to get fresh and harder-to-find ingredients. The closest (and one of the best, I thought) was an indoor farmers market called Mercado Barcelo, where I found high quality local ingredients at a fraction of the price of supertouristy markets such as Mercado San Miguel in central Madrid.

Sites like TalkTalkBnB help distribute tourists (and their spending) to different parts of a city, supporting not just the popular places, but the lesser known ones.. By staying with Sara and Fer, for even three short weeks, I developed a new appreciation for the city and a deeper appreciation for Spain.  For its small towns, its neighborhoods, its markets, and its food.  For its customs, its music, its radio programs, and even its politics.  And by developing this appreciation, these authentic, non-commercial, and localized travel experiences and exchanges make not just the traveler, but the destination, better.

Good Food Tours Rely On Mom-and-Pop Shops

[Above: One stop on a food tour—a meat vendor at Madrid’s Mercado de Antón Martín.
All photos by Eugene Kim.]

Building Better Culinary Tourism by Supporting Local Businesses

The clues to a good, local food establishment were there, even before tasting their food: the silver-haired customers lining up with an assortment of families, single professionals, and students, and the exchange in Spanish coming from behind the counter as Jesús begins wrapping up some meats.

“Hi Maria! How are you doing?  And how’s your dad?”

“Well, he’s better, but….”

Eventually, the food (excellent jamón ibérico and jamón serrano— Spanish celebrities in the cured meat world) proved the lines and repeat customers were warranted.

I had visited the meat shop in Mercado de Antón Martín, a market of fresh and prepared foods beloved by madrileños, with a food walking tour in early March. That tour, taken with Devour Madrid Food Tours, along with some exchanges with its co-founders, brought up the importance of supporting mom and pop shops. (Note—To keep the trade secrets of Devour Madrid’s food tours, I have, as much as possible, tried to keep the food and drink businesses visited during the tour anonymous.)

Key to having successful food tours?  Be a responsible tourism operator.

Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.

Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.

Growth in food tours means greater need to do it well

With the rise of a food-centric culture, food-obsessed images on social media, and travelers seeking unique experiences connecting them to local cultures, culinary tourism is becoming an increasingly significant part of global tourism.  Spain has benefited in a big way from the rise in food tourism, being among the top four countries in the world attracting food-driven travelers in recent years.  In 2013, “7.4 million international tourists in 2013” out of a total 60.7 million international tourists to Spain engaged in food tourism in Spain.  That number rose to “8.4 million international tourists,” in 2015, “representing 12.3% of the total [number of international tourists],” according to Matilde Pastora Asian González, Secretary of State for Tourism of Spain.  Asian Gonzalez also noted the “immense potential” of “gastronomy tourism…particularly in rural destinations.”

Lauren Aloise, one of the co-founders of Devour Madrid, remembers that when she first started, there wasn’t a lot of competition.  “In 2012, there were two companies I knew of offering evening tapas tours in Madrid— but no one, as far as I can remember, offered daytime food tours,” says Aloise.  However, Madrid now has over a dozen food tours listed just on TripAdvisor alone. Devour Madrid, which offers both daytime and evening tours, currently stands at the top of food-specific tours on that TripAdvisor list.

James Blick, another co-founder of Devour Madrid, attributes the success of Devour Madrid to a few key factors: adhering to ethical business practices that value transparency (no cash transactions) and fair wages (paying its employees and the establishments it works with well), hiring storytellers with a passion for Spanish food and culture as guides, and crafting food tours that visit small, local food and drink businesses.

“A food tour is about more than food, it’s about telling stories and about sharing the history and culture of a place,” says Blick.

“It’s about promoting responsible tourism…supporting the local economy by supporting family run businesses that make Spain so unique,” says Aloise.

It bears repeating. Their entire business model is based on supporting small, local, family-run businesses, which has been a key element to their success.

A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking)

A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking).

For example, instead of working with the most popular (most reviewed) churros con chocolate shops in Madrid (which happen to be a local chain), Devour Madrid works with independent businesses. Not that Devour Madrid has anything against chains, but the strong relationship it has with the friendly shop owner, along with the shop’s non-touristic, neighborhood feel (where you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals than with other tourists) is the essence of Madrid that it wants to share with its clients.

Mom and pop shops: Sense of place guardians

Small businesses help create and reflect the character of a place – giving communities at the macro level (cities, regions, and nations) and the micro level (blocks and neighborhoods) their character and identity. For example, in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca, you’re more likely to find expansive, upscale cafes rather than the smaller, hipster coffee shops in the artsy neighborhoods of Lavapies, La Latina, and Malasaña.

A strong sense of place is crucial to attracting travelers and building up a loyal following for a place, a following who will not only share their positive experiences on- and offline, but also become repeat visitors. This, then, becomes mutually reinforcing, as the attraction and retention of travelers to a destination keeps that destination and sense of place living and thriving through tourism.

As travelers crisscross a shrunken world, trying to escape the sameness and “culinary homogenization taking hold in many cities around the world,” here are a few reasons why tour operators and travelers would do well to support small and local food and drink businesses.

What mom and pop shops are all about:

  • Authenticity

“‘Living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travelers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences,” according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Because small, local establishments are often the ones frequented by locals, they provide “instantaneous, hospitable immersion into a foreign place.” That is not to say that chains can’t provide good, local fare and aren’t popular with locals, but it’s the smaller places where you can actually be a part of the local culture. It’s where the owner might have photos of their family members or local celebrities on display, where artwork from local, emerging artists might adorn the walls and be available for purchase, or local food and drink might be incorporated into the menu. A smaller establishment often allows for more opportunities for interactions with local patrons and with the owners themselves. And smaller establishments may also be more prone to creating their own homebrew or special recipes, such as vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap) or cocido (a traditional madrileno stew), offering food and drink that can be found nowhere else.

Vermouth on tap, a quintessential Madrid drink.

  • History and context

Storytelling and food have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s sharing stories over food or the food itself telling the story. By visiting small, local businesses, you are often supporting a family or partnership – each with their own, unique story of how their restaurant, or bar, or market or other food business came to be, and how it’s been shaped by and shaped its neighborhood. Whether the business is 2 months old or 200 years old, each has a relationship with its neighbors and neighborhoods and provides a space for developing bonds among neighbors. For example, during my food tour, I learned about an 80+ year old wine and cheese shop that had almost closed when its proprietor was imprisoned for helping Socialists during the Spanish Civil War. But his family carried on without him, even during the very lean times of the war.  We weren’t able to meet the third generation shopkeeper that day, but it’s good to know that he’s around and able to chat with visitors – to provide them with both a face and a story for his shop.  Sure, you can read about the history of Madrid or its various neighborhoods and then visit points of interest.  But why not also interact with a place and its history by talking with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond generation of a family that has stayed connected to and supported an area by running a small business there?  Or find out the untold stories of new small business owners who know a neighborhood first hand? That kind of engagement enhances the history and culture of a place. By often giving people more direct experiences with the unique people and places that are a part of a culture’s history, mom and pop shops can push the experience beyond just ticking the “I’ve been there” box. 

An 80+ year old local, family operated tapas and wine bar (and shop)

This 80-plus-year-old family-operated tapas and wine bar includes a shop.

  • Cultural introductions and bridge building

Small, local food and drink establishments are often the gateway to new foods and new destinations. Because these businesses are rooted to a place and have developed relationships with and support other small businesses, they often carry products that can’t typically be found in some of the larger establishments. You might get introduced to a rare artisanal cheese that’s produced in very small batches by a new cheesemaker or a wine from a yet-to-be famous wine-producing region.

Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower left).

Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower right).

And as you get your insider information and learn about new products—and perhaps, new destinations—you might be inspired (or hooked!) to keep buying those products or to visit the source of those products. For example, one soft cow’s milk cheese that I loved during a cheese and wine tasting on the food tour, showed up again in another establishment—only this time, in bulk form that I could take home with me! The tour also reaffirmed that the regions of Extremadura, Asturias, and Galicia need to be a part of my Spain trip list, as it featured excellent foods from these less traveled regions.

  • Lasting memories

Of course, great trips mean great memories. And when paired with great food, great trips can turn into favorite trips, installing them into the memory banks’ hall of fame, where they have longer staying power and easier recall. By providing good food, stories that connect people to places, and a more authentic cultural experience, small, local establishments help build better destination memories for travelers. These memories, in turn, build up enthusiasm for a place, translating into better reviews and recommendations for that place and making repeat visits more likely. Living (for the moment) in Madrid, I know that I will be going back to at least a few places featured on the food tour and take visiting friends to those places. Because food memories are especially palpable, they have the power to change both hearts and minds.  An especially good dish, such as the one featured in its namesake movie Ratatouille, can (spoiler alert) have the power to transform even the most demanding and fearsome critics into friends.

  • Longevity through diversity 

Maybe the greatest strength of small businesses is how they contribute to the life of a community by providing the lion’s share of commercial diversity.  It’s this diversity that helps give a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, its quirkiness and character and what influential (and prescient) urban activist, theorist, and author Jane Jacobs identified as being not only “an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.”  Although Madrid has lost many small businesses to the global recession in 2008 and to a rent-control scrapping law that took effect in 2015, many still remain, giving Madrid’s neighborhoods their distinct identities and feel.  Feel like stepping back to old-school Madrid with stores as specialized as ones dedicated to selling honey or embroidery supplies?  Check out the neighborhood of Prosperidad. Need to find a neighborhood with a mixture of old and new restaurants, bars, and shops, but that has more of a residential vibe instead of a touristy one? Head to Chamberi. And while Madrid may not have the level of racial or ethnic diversity that can be found in other, larger cities or in countries more heterogenous than Spain, it does—through it’s diverse small businesses—encourage a diversity of ages and socioeconomic background among its patrons.

Whether I’m waiting in line behind Señora Maria for some jamón serrano from Jesús or behind a group of school kids for some horchata at a local horchatería (a business specializing in horchatas), my patronage at these small businesses is not just feeding my cravings for Spanish food, but also, the soul of the city itself—helping to preserve Madrid’s identity and past, while at the same time, supporting its future.