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‘Tourists go home’: Spain tourism surge brings backlash


Spain  –  On the walls of the grand old houses of this Balearic port which attracts millions of foreigners every year, a new kind of graffiti has flourished: “Tourists go home’’.

Although still a minority protest, it pointed to tensions in Palma de Mallorca and elsewhere in Spain over rising numbers of visitors who were propelling the economy.

They were also disrupting the lives of locals and straining services from transport to water.

With tourism accounting for 12 per cent of economic output and 16 per cent of jobs, Spain could not afford a backlash.

Long a popular beach destination, this year Spain was drawing record number of visitors who were shunning destinations where security was a concern, notably Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey.

The surge had helped the country recover from recession and alleviate jobs crisis, but for many Spaniards, the jump in tourism had a downside.

Luis Clar who heads the association in the La Seu neighborhood of Palma de Mallorce said, `they want to turn us into a theme park’’.

“A place you close the doors on at night because no-one lives there, home to its main monuments.’’

Here the city council had recently banned parking near the sandstone cathedral, where vehicles on its sea-facing esplanade were deemed an eyesore.

But losing that parking space had forced many families living in the area’s narrow alleys to park much further afield or spend hours circling, Clar said.

Most streets were narrow and often filled with sightseers. One couple had recently left the area as a result, Clar added.

In the Balearics off Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast, nearly a third of employment depended on the sector.

It accounted for nearly half the economic output, more than in any other region. The local economy had just recovered to its pre-crisis level after a five-year downturn.

Yet unease over the boom was spreading among the population.

In drought-prone island, Ibiza water reserves were getting tight and in rural Menorca fears were mounting that natural beauty-spots risk being spoiled.

On one day last August, the population across the Balearics nearly doubled, reaching a record two million.

The latest data from March showed visitors to the archipelago were up nearly 50 per cent from 2015 in that month alone, swelled by arrivals from Britain in particular.

All inclusive holidays for the peak summer months were selling out.

In Palma, residents knew there were days to avoid the city centre, especially when cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers mass in the harbour, and some worry entire neighborhoods would turn into holiday lets.

Similar concerns led to angry protests in Barcelona two years ago where residents in beachfront areas rallied against the rise in drunk and disorderly holidaymakers that coincided with a blossoming trade in tourist apartments.

For Gaspar Alomar, a temporary worker in a bookshop in one of Palma’s medieval quarters, the recent spate of anti-tourist graffiti in the city had at least appeared to stoke a debate over whether this type of growth was desirable.

“The resources we have are finite, it’s logical that there should be a finite number of people coming,” 30-year-old Alomar said.

“If we build our whole economy around tourism, we’ll have nothing to hold onto if trends change, in the long run it’s not sustainable.”

In some respects, local authorities were leaning if not toward limiting tourism, at least toward controlling it.

Next year, the smallest of the Balearics’ four main islands, Formentera could introduce taxes on cars entering the area, and the region was looking into capping accommodation for tourists, said Biel Barcelo, the local Tourism Minister.

In July, the left-wing government in charge of the archipelago since 2015 would bring in a tourism tax of up to two Euros for overnight stays.

Though, measures such as these had also sparked an outcry among travel firms and hoteliers.

“We already live well enough from tourism – we should not be demanding a top-up,” said Monica Garcia, a worker at the small Ritzi Guest House in central Palma.

Hotel groups had warned it could hurt revenues in the long run, and dismay at any attempts to curb tourism.

It was also evident among many people who depended on the trade in Mallorca, from taxi drivers to souvenir sellers.

Barcelo argued improved regulation and planning – from more efforts to attract visitors out of season to better management of the glut of visitors disembarking all at once from cruise ships would help protect the industry from the risk of a backlash if residents became overwhelmed.

The tax, he said, aimed to mobilise between 50 million and 70 million Euros (78 million dollars) a year mainly for environmental projects.

“The tourism sector should be the first to want to ensure there is no backlash.

“We want to keep living off tourism and we need to make it sustainable for the next 30 or 40 years
(one dollars = 0.8921 Euros),’’ Barcelo said.

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