A lot has been said and written about the tourist tax but probably what tourists will want to know is how this money is going to be spent and how will it improve the Balearics?
Everyone will benefit from the investments which will be made as a result of the tourist tax. We will be upgrading the holiday resorts and correcting the errors which have been made over the last 40 years during the development of the industry so that the Balearics can maintain their position as the Number 1 holiday destination. We are investing in the future and in years to come the results will be evident for everyone to see.
Can you give a brief outline of how the Balearics will benefit?
We will be following three basic guidelines. The first step will be to invest heavily on improving resorts. We will not simply be papering over the cracks, we will start at the foundations and work upwards, taking into account all aspects. Marshland (such as in the north of the island) will be recovered so that it can be visited by tourists and residents alike. Abandoned hotels and buildings which have become an eyesore will be demolished. We want to generally upgrade resorts and iron out the mistakes of the past. The second important project which will benefit from the tourist tax cash is the purchase of land, especially in areas of environmental importance. Once the purchase is complete these areas will be transformed into parks and green zones, ensuring that our natural resources will be protected. But we are not just talking about transforming the islands into one large park. We will be working closely with local farmers on protecting and developing natural products which are unique to these islands. Also, attempting to resolve the water problems which have always dogged local farmers and paying for research into environmental and ecological farming. And in the same way as we will be removing eyesores from the tourist resorts we will be doing the same in rural areas, burying electricity cables so that the landscape is not blighted. Thirdly and just as important as the other two, we will attempt to recover our heritage and take a close look at our cities, trying to make them more human and user-friendly by investing in cultural activities and events, with museums and exhibition areas dedicated to our history and culture. These basically are the three issues which will benefit. They are ambitious projects but we are convinced that all of the above is attainable. Over the next few days (almost coinciding with the launch of the tax on Wednesday May 1) we will be presenting the first of the projects. All these projects will have to follow the necessary legal and administrative guidelines which are called for in the Tourist Tax bill which was approved by the Balearic parliament. There is also a series of committees which will ensure that the money is properly spent.
The tourist tax comes into force next week, what message would you give to holidaymakers who are probably not that impressed that they've got to pay a surcharge on their holiday?
I would tell them that we are working to improve the quality of life of the people who live here and the people who come here every year on holiday. We appeal to the tourists to make a small contribution which in the long run will improve the Balearics and make their holidays better and more pleasant. We are asking them for their solidarity with us and the Balearics. We know that many tourists come back year after year and they will be able to clearly see how their money has been spent.
Judging by what you said above and if everything goes to plan then the Balearics will be a better place for residents and tourists. Don't you find it ironic then, that the hoteliers who will clearly benefit, are so opposed to the tax?
I believe that there is always a fear of change and something new. The only path forward is the path of change. We have to adapt to reflect the ever changing desires and needs of those who visit us every year. Tourists and residents share something in common, they want to see the Balearics protected. Tourism must go handinhand with the well-being of those who live here. I have said to hoteliers, on many occasions, that they, as the key industry should be at the forefront and understand the need for change. I can understand their fears but change is inevitable and it will be a change for the better.
Ten years ago when you were a Director General in this same department under a different minister would you ever have imagined that you would be introducing a controversial and ground breaking tourist tax?
Back then, I remember that the minister for tourism at that time, Jaume Cladera, always said to me that if we had 10'000 million pesetas we could transform the Balearics into the best tourist destination in the world. I believe that this dream, thanks to the additional funding as a result of the tourist tax, is close to becoming a reality.
Your department and you yourself have been greatly criticised for the tourist tax and at one stage the ministry building appeared like the Alamo. Did you ever think about scrapping the tax or just say now is not the time?
Yes, you are right, a picture was painted that this department was against everyone. But we are the Balearic ministry for tourism and part of the democratically elected government of the Balearics. We are convinced that this tax will enhance the Balearics and the first people who will benefit will be the business community and their employees. This is the principal reason why we decided to push ahead with the tax and time will tell that we were right. We are investing in the future and once again we have become a beacon for the development of tourism.
I have read that Catalonia is also considering introducing a tourist tax?
It is not just Catalonia, but Lanzarote as well. My department has been in touch with officials there as well. Protecting the environment it not just an issue in Spain, the European Union itself and other Tourist Think Tanks have made similar statements. We, as the region with such a significant tourist industry, are obliged to take the lead role. The path we have taken will be followed by many other tourist destinations.
What advice would you give to other areas planning to introduce the tax?
I would say to them that they mustn't shy away from the issue of tourist development and the need to protect the environment. It is a social issue and they must realise that it is one of vital importance.
You have just returned from a factfinding mission in Germany and members of your staff will be off to Britain next week. Do you think that there could be a fall in tourism this summer?
In Germany, I saw two things. The complete support and understanding of the tax by the political parties and consumer associations. The only thing they want is transparency (on how the money will be spent) and information and that the projects which are funded by the tax are clearly defined. I think the British market is behaving as usual as there is more supply than demand but I suspect that it will recover. The German market is something different as a result of the economic difficulties which the country is experiencing at this time. We cannot talk of recession but certainly economic difficulties. Also, we have competition. In first place we have Germany itself. Many more people will be holidaying at home this year. The Germans will also be taking car holidays to neighbouring countries such as Italy. Then there are the new holiday destinations of Turkey and Croatia. We are all going to have to split the market. For some time now we have been a safe haven destination because of the problems in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe. These problems no longer exist. What does all this mean? That we are going to have to diversify into other tourist markets, in other words we can't be so reliant on a single nation.
It has often been said that too many tourists visit the Balearics? What is your stance on this issue?
Firstly, we must give a warm welcome to all those tourists who visit us. Secondly we must work for a better distribution of tourism, in other words, make the season longer so that there is not such an important concentration during the key summer months.
How do we do this?
By diversifying into other markets such as hiking, cycling etc. Once we have the necessary infrastructure in place we can the develop into an all year round holiday destination.
A few years ago a government official was quoted as saying that if 500'000 less hooligans came on holiday this wouldn't be a bad thing. Do you agree with this?
The hooligans of the 1980s were our worst image. Our worst image these days is the Balneario 6 (a network of bars, clubs, etc in the Arenal area, popular with young German tourists). We know this for a fact because it is evident in the surveys and market research we carry out in Germany. Once Palma and its resorts, including Arenal, are given a facelift I believe that this market, which is governed by cheap prices, could go elsewhere. We are going to work hard to improve our holiday offer and this should be reflected in the market. If we are capable of transforming Arenal and the whole Playa de Palma, into a sporting and leisure centre, then we should congratulate ourselves. And I am not just talking about the Playa de Palma, but San Antonio in Ibiza as well.
Earlier this month we interviewed Simon Sherwood, President of Orient Express hotels, the new owners of the La Residencia in Deya. He said that one of the reasons why they had decided to come to the Balearics was because of your policies on protecting the environment. Would you like to see more five star hotels here?
I was also talking to Mr Sherwood and I am glad that we have hoteliers of his calibre in this community. I want him to continue to demand more from the Balearics when it comes to service and quality. I also know that there is a limit to the number of five star grade tourists the island can attract. But what we must work hard to achieve is to try and give everyone who visits us the best possible service and quality so that they enjoy their holiday to the maximum. In all industries you have flagships and I am glad to see that La Residencia is one of them.
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