Guillem Colom-Montero – ‘COVID Summer of 2020: From Overtourism to No-Tourism in Southern Europe’

Many EU citizens witnessed how their cities have become tourism commodities, Disneylands in the EU economic master-plan. With COVID-19 they have re-discovered their home towns and civic culture.

Guillem Colom-Montero is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow. He specialises on contemporary Hispanic literature and culture, with a particular focus on Catalan Studies, transnational cultural approaches to tourism and nationalisms in Spain

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When strict lockdowns lifted in early June, islanders emerged from their homes to find a sun-washed coastline that – seemingly for the first time in memory – was empty of tourists in the high season’. The sentence was published in the National Geographic magazine on the 20th of July 2020, the island was Majorca and its content couldn’t be more to the point. Since the emergence of mass tourism in the 1950s, the island’s beaches have been packed with tourists season after season, but in the summer of 2020 they have been emptier than ever (at least of tourists). While Covid-19 has wreaked economic havoc on an island almost entirely dependent on tourism revenues, the article described how Majorcans were also enjoying their suddenly tourist-free island, even whilst feeling some unease. Walking through the deserted beaches ‘was strange, and beautiful’ declared resident Julio Batle, encapsulating some of Majorcans’ common reflections on the summer of the pandemic. Such mixed feelings about the value of tourism were not new. Tourism monoculture has long been criticised by local left organisations, though until the Covid-19 era, the prospect of a largely tourist-free Majorca seemed remote.

The Covid-19 crisis erupted after a decade in which tourism in Majorca and in many destinations globally had reached a tipping point captured by the rapid popularisation of the term overtourism. Indeed, the 2010s might be defined as the age of overtourism, a period in which discourses critical of the industry mushroomed all over the world and the concept of overtourism came to dominate public debates on the matter. In spite of this, however, tourism continued stronger than ever – until Covid-19. The impact of tourism has been long felt and discussed in Majorca. I have recently argued that mass tourism represents a culturally traumatic experience for the local population, giving rise to new forms of contestation in public culture. As I noted in an article published in the journal Studies in Comics last year, two popular comic books published in 2014 and 2018 have portrayed the advent of mass tourism ‘as the trigger of a sudden, comprehensive, unexpected and polarising episode of social change that has profoundly transformed the sociocultural tissue of Majorcan society and the island’s landscape and territory’ – a similar perspective has been at the core of a large number of cultural creations coming out in the 2010s as well as of local collectives critical of mass tourism on the island. In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that Majorcans have uneasily welcomed a summer with almost no visitors. As the above National Geographic piece observed, for a few months ‘islanders got an unexpected glimpse of a different life.’ Put differently, in absence of the usual tourist-heavy presence on the island, Majorcans began to reclaim spaces and experiences which tourism had long precluded. This sense of rejuvenation was expressed in an article published in late July in Diario de Mallorca, one of the island’s leading newspapers. The piece opened with the heading ‘A summer without tourists: Majorcans reclaim the lost paradise’. The article detailed how the local population was rediscovering locations they previously avoided due to overcrowding and more generally just enjoying the calmer atmosphere, cleaner seas and shorelines, as well as a reduction of traffic congestion and noise levels. As the opening paragraph noted, during this unusual summer Majorcans even ventured ‘to put their beach-towels in places that a few years ago were unthinkable’ like the (formerly) touristified locations of Palmanova, Magaluf, and S’Arenal. Indeed, throughout the summer pictures of a deserted Magaluf have been widely shared on social media, imagines that have come to symbolically encapsulate the repercussions of the sudden transition from overtourism to no-tourism in one of Europe’s most popular beach destinations. The locals’ experience was aptly summed up by Palma resident Catalina Zaragoza. While sunbathing in Magaluf, she recounted seeing fish and even ducks in the sea, and rejoicing that ‘you can go for a quiet and safe walk along Punta Ballena’, the boulevard epitomising the party and alcohol model of tourism associated with Magaluf.

Such celebrations about the reprieve from tourists are hardly exclusive to Majorca. La Rambla in Barcelona has long encapsulated the ways in which tourism has colonised public and private spaces, with the promenade’s bars and restaurants becoming no-go areas for the local community – again, until Covid-19. On the 30th of May, a piece of news in Barcelona’s public TV channel presented the new prices introduced by a couple of La Rambla’s restaurants aiming to attract local costumers. A waiter tells the camera that a seafood paella on the terrace is now 6 euros and, when prompted by the journalist, emphasizes that before this it cost between 13 and 15 euros. A second waiter sums up the new reality: ‘we now serve half-a-litre of beer for three euros and a sangria for six. Even my local bar is more expensive!’. A hotel in Majorca’s Port de Sóller put forward a similar strategy, targeting locals with special prices and the slogan ‘This summer, Majorca is more ours than ever’, inadvertently exposing the process of dispossession and displacement that has defined mass tourism on the island. Tellingly, the advert was in Catalan, the island’s vernacular language historically marginalised by the tourism industry, which indicates how spatial and cultural dispossession have developed hand in hand on the island. Going back to Barcelona, if its residents were now able to afford a meal al fresco in La Rambla, the city’s children could for the first time in decades play in the popular Gothic Quarter; for many youngsters, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the 7th of July, a report in TV3, the main channel of Catalonia’s public broadcaster, showed a group of kids playing football with Barcelona’s Cathedral in the background, later on voicing the slogan ‘We wanna play’ in Catalan to celebrate and reclaim community life in the city’s Old Town. As the father of a three-year-old boy said, ‘we realised that a common situation in smaller towns, where children meet and play in squares, had not been possible here until now. And we would be sad to lose this whenever the so-called normality returns’. The undesired normality hasn’t returned. The meandering flood of travellers arriving to Barcelona and Majorca in mid-July significantly decreased when Coronavirus cases started to rise again all over Spain, almost coming to halt in late July after the British government suddenly brought back the 14-day quarantine for travellers returning from Spain. Whereas tourism may be a key industry for Majorca and Barcelona, these snippets help illuminate the local communities’ long-running frustration with overtourism, which prevented them from socialising on the streets and squares they inhabit, from visiting their region’s beaches and natural spaces.

These views clearly interrelate with the critique of overtourism put forward by grassroots movements and amplified by cultural creations in Barcelona, Majorca, and other Southern European destinations in the late 2010s, which framed discussions about tourism’s impact through vocabularies of invasion, colonialism, illness and disease. A couple of examples will suffice. As the book Ciudad de vacaciones. Conflictos urbanos en espacios turísticos (2018) tells us, one of Lisbon’s community collectives against overtourism is called Terremoturism, both its name and actions paralleling tourism’s effects in the Portuguese capital to the destruction caused by the 1755 Great Lisbon earthquake. And with Venice representing one of the cities most affected by the dynamics of contemporary tourism, Venetians were no doubt pleased with a bit of a respite. In early June, a piece in The New York Times described the residents’ experience of post-lockdown Venice, reporting their delight when taking their small boats to the pristine-water canals or walking through the quiet ‘alleys, porticoes and campos’, which ‘reverberated with Italian, and even with Venetian dialect’ – another example of how tourism flows in the 21st century have become key agents in the process of marginalisation of vernacular languages and cultures. Such narratives are echoed in Majorca, where commentators have noted more positive attitudes towards the Catalan language this summer. As with the Barcelona residents, Bergamo Rossi, descendant of a long-generation of Venetians, said that he didn’t want to return to the old normality because he wished to live in ‘a real city’, and subsequently paralleled the socio-cultural damage caused by Airbnb to Covid-19: ‘It’s like a plague, and it turned us into a ghost town’.

These discourses and vocabularies illustrate the fruitfulness of the theoretical framework of cultural trauma in analysing the ways in which local communities in Southern Europe have experienced and responded to overtourism. The National Geographic, Diario de Mallorca, TV3 and The New York Times quoted residents declaring that the Coronavirus crisis offered an unexpected opportunity to rethink the model of mass tourism after a frantic period in which their lifestyle had dramatically changed for the worse. Plenty of articles have been published, both in the media and academic journals, discussing whether the Covid-19 crisis will transform the model of (over-)tourism. Opinions are varied, ranging from those who consider that the transformation of the industry is extremely difficult to more optimistic pieces which argue that Coronavirus will certainly transform individual travel behaviours and, for this reason, will have a long-term effect on the wider tourism industry. While predicting the future remains challenging, as Covid-19 vaccines are starting to be rolled out across Europe promising a return to ‘normality’, the tourism promoters have been quick to seize on these expectations to re-entrench tourism as the default economic model. The Government of the Balearic Islands has recently announced a series of campaigns to promote the arrival of tourists from March 2021 to bring in revenues as soon as possible and a seminar organised by the Hotel Business Federation of Mallorca has forecasted that the island will recover between 40% and 50% of its foreign visitors in 2021. This seems to indicate that no tourism reset is being planned for Majorca, and most probably the same applies to many if not all overtouristified destinations in Southern Europe and beyond. Going back to the old normality will be the industry’s gain, but also the local communities’ loss. What remains to be seen, thus, is whether the peek into a non-overtouristified life will provide an impetus to grassroots movements fighting against the social and cultural damage that tourism has caused in recent decades and which will continue to cause if nothing changes. They will certainly need such an impetus now that public-private policies and discourses presenting tourism as the only way to improve wrecked economies in the South of Europe seem to be back in force.

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