'Tourists go home': Record numbers of visitors in Spain prompts backlash

Tourists crowd Palma de Mallorca's Arenal beach on the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca, on July 25, 2014.
Tourists crowd Palma de Mallorca's Arenal beach on the Spanish Balearic island of Mallorca, on July 25, 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

MALLORCA (Reuters) - On the walls of the grand old houses of this Balearic port that attracts millions of foreigners every year, a new kind of graffiti has flourished: "Tourists go home."

Although still a minority protest, it points to tensions in Palma de Mallorca and elsewhere in Spain over rising numbers of visitors who are propelling the economy but 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 can ill afford a backlash.

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

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

"They want to turn us into a theme park, a place you close the doors on at night because no-one lives there," said Mr Luis Clar, who heads an association in the La Seu neighbourhood of Palma de Mallorca, home to its main monuments.

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

But losing that parking space has forced many families living in the area's narrow alleys to park much further afield or spend hours circling, Mr Clar said. Most streets are narrow and often filled with sightseers. One couple had recently left the area as a result, Mr Clar said.

In the Balearics off Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast, nearly a third of employment depends on the sector. It accounts for nearly half the economic output, more than in any other region. The local economy has just recovered to its pre-crisis level after a five-year downturn.

Yet unease over the boom is spreading among the population.

In drought-prone island, Ibiza water reserves are getting tight and in rural Menorca fears are 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 shows 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 are selling out.

In Palma, residents know there are days to avoid the city centre, especially when cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers mass in the harbour, and some worry entire neighbourhoods will 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 Mr 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 has at least appeared to stoke a debate over whether this type of growth is desirable.

"The resources we have are finite, it's logical that there should be a finite number of people coming," 30-year-old Mr 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, the local authorities are leaning if not towards limiting tourism, at least towards controlling it.

Next year the smallest of the Balearics' four main islands, Formentera, could introduce taxes on cars entering the area, and the region is looking into capping accommodation for tourists, said Mr Biel Barcelo, the local tourism minister.

In July, the left-wing government in charge of the archipelago since 2015 will bring in a tourism tax of up to 2 euros for overnight stays, though measures such as these have 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 Ms Monica Garcia, a worker at the small Ritzi guesthouse in central Palma.

Hotel groups have warned it could hurt revenues in the long run, and dismay at any attempts to curb tourism is also evident among many people who depend on the trade in Mallorca, from taxi drivers to souvenir sellers.

Mr Barcelo argued that 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 become overwhelmed.

The tax, he said, aims to raise between 50 million euros and 70 million euros a year mainly for environmental projects.

"The tourism sector should be the first to want to ensure there is no backlash," Mr Barcelo said. "We want to keep living off tourism and we need to make it sustainable for the next 30 or 40 years."