segunda-feira, 16 de maio de 2016

Packed beaches and gridlock loom large as tourists swap terrorism hotspots for Spain

Packed beaches and gridlock loom large as tourists swap terrorism hotspots for Spain
Record numbers of cruise ships, airport capacity pushed to the limit and on the roads. But the Balearics find welcome cash also brings headaches

Tracy McVeigh in Mallorca
Saturday 14 May 2016 20.48 BST

The beaches are not yet packed on a windy weekend in the Balearic islands and few have ventured into the brusque waves. But even though the summer season is just under way, the bars, restaurants and roads of Mallorca are thronged with people and traffic.

The famous dance clubs of Ibiza are planning their seasonal launch parties this week, while Menorca and Formentera expect to bust their environmentally sustainable levels of visitors even earlier than last year.

The cruise ships are already arriving, looming into port out of the Mediterranean like giant futuristic housing estates. On one day in the first week of May a record eight of the sea monsters came in at Palma, the largest of Mallorca’s two ports, disgorging more than 22,000 passengers into buses and taxis for the short hop into the old town to look at the cathedral and linger over the tapas.

The three main Balearic islands of Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca have become the second-biggest destination in the Med for cruise ships, themselves a growing phenomenon in tourism, with 790 ships stopping off last year.

While Palma expects 524 ships this season, Ibiza predicts 154, up 28% from last year’s 120. On Monday the 275m-long MSC Armonia, owned by Swiss-based MSC Cruises, became the first giant cruise ship to slip into the freshly deepened port of Mahón in Menorca. The ports authority says the visits translate to 3,000 jobs on the islands. But they bring just a small percentage of the total 65 million visitors to Spain last year, a number some think could rise by up to 20% this year.

The Balearics, with a permanent population of 1.1 million, had 13 million visitors last year. Palma is already pushing its airport capacity of 66 flights a day to 100 this season.

As Europeans turn away from Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and any other destination tinged with a threat of terrorism, Spain – along with Portugal, Greece and Italy – is picking up the trade. That’s good economic news – but Spain’s holiday hotspots are creaking at the seams.

“Where do people go to find peace? Into the sea?” said Gerard Hau, a geographer and spokesman at Grup Balear d’Ornitologia Defensa de la Naturalesa (GOB), an umbrella group for environmentalists in the Balearics.

“This will be a crazy year. The infrastructure will not cope. Mallorca is booked out. We will have serious problems this summer.

“People come here to enjoy life, but they are stressed because they can’t get a seat on the buses – there aren’t enough buses. Already we have 60,000 rental cars on this island. We are second only to Hong Kong in our car density. The traffic is gridlocked, so people are stressed. There are no parking places.

“If they can’t go in the sea sometimes, they are stressed. Last year we had problems with sewage. The system just couldn’t cope, and we do not let people into the sea if there are such problems. They are stressed because there is no room on the beaches, they are stressed and they won’t come back. Tourism is a vital thing, mass tourism is a tricky, tricky thing. This year will be a crisis year,” he said.

Hau recognises the benefits of tourism and the beauty of the islands, but is worried at the lack of controls. GOB has been influential in bringing to court some 15 politicans now languishing in Mallorcan jails over illegal construction in sensitive areas. Last week in Palma, graffiti appeared saying “tourism is terrorism” and “tourists go home”.

Hau believes there is strong support for sustainable development, but points to conservation issues. Mallorca has a rare population of 100 black vultures and “people are now walking up to the nests”. Sand dunes have been eroded. “How can you limit the people?” asks Hau. “In Spain it’s a fundamental right to be able to go anywhere and that is a good democratic right. You cannot start to ask people not to go, or to pay. It’s tricky to reduce numbers.

“I think it’s better to have those drinking ghettoes, Playa de Palma and Magaluf, where people go, rather than these intellectual types of tourists who tramp over everything in their search for the untouched bit, the original Mallorcan, and the residential tourists, who buy up property, buy a car, usually two, swimming pools, and want gardens with plants and grass like at home but that need water.”

In Barcelona there is full-throated debate over tourist capacity. Last year the new mayor, Ada Colau, allowed stallholders to ban big groups of tourists from la Boqueria market at set times and stopped all licensing for new tourist accommodation, which had tripled in a decade.

Formentera and Ibiza are considering banning tourist cars and Mallorcan police scan the internet to clamp down on illegal holiday lets. The president of the Balearics, Francina Armengol, is deeply worried that the good money they can earn as a waiter or hotel worker is stopping young people from going into the professions.

Others are leaving. Rose Sala is Mallorcan by birth and wanted to stay, but has changed her mind. “It’s enough. It costs so much and the mainland is far cheaper. It would have been worth it because we love this place, but it is unbearable in the summer now. I’m sorry because I have a lot of friends who need these jobs and want the tourists to be high in number, but for me, no. It’s too much.”

Her friend is Lesley, a Scot who jumped ship from her job on a cruise liner 11 years ago and stayed, marrying a local doctor. “This is a beautiful island, and such friendly people,” she said. “Everyone needs the tourists to survive, so I’d hate to put anyone off, because a busy summer is good news and will be fun. What I’d really like to see is more people coming off-season, because it’s still lovely then.”

On 1 June a controversial tourist “eco-tax” comes into force – €2 a day towards environment protection.

Professor Geoffrey Lipman runs the SUN Program, based in Brussels, which works towards sustainable tourism, and he fears the pressure is too often on politicians to end up throwing such a tax into their main budgets when austerity bites.

“It’s all a little like King Canute sitting on the seashore ordering back the waves. Who wants to attack the problem when it’s helping you grow, bringing in to countries like Spain 4% per annum growth?” he said. “So whether it’s moral or not moral, leaving the destinations damaged or not, there is a huge economic driver.

Lipman added: “If a cruise ship is dumping too many people in too small an area, then they shouldn’t be. I worried about that when I saw the first cruise ships going to Cuba; it’s a big problem. It could be damaging your assets, your coral reef, your resources, this tourist footprint that’s wearing away the Taj Mahal, for instance, or your culture, like the Hindu population in Bali watching hordes of crazy Australians on their beaches. The cobbled streets of Prague which began to be destroyed as masses of tourist buses arrived.”

He is optimistic that governments, including Spain’s, and the tourism industry are beginning to see sustainability as a goal. “It’s not an overnight thing. Mallorca will have a difficult summer, but we have to balance the positive with the negative. Tourism brings in jobs, income, growth and a benefit across the economy, but we have to watch the balance sheet, and while we’re not there yet, that is beginning to be accepted.”

In Playa de Palma, the party town around 10km from Mallorca’s capital, a sheepish trio of Dutch men are returning a lifebelt they purloined in the early hours to the side of their hotel pool. It’s early afternoon and the resort is heaving. Singsongs have already started in the Bier Konig. The bins and bars along the front are full. “It’s crazy already, so the more people, the happier,” said Lucas, 24. “More women would be fine. You come here to go a bit crazy and I think we spend plenty of euros, so it’s good for Mallorca, too. See? We even return the safety swim.”

The hotel receptionist, Nico from Madrid, apologises for the noise from the bar next door: “It’s a party place and the party is getting bigger and bigger. It’s bad now, but come July and August, well, I would like to take a holiday then myself.”

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