Six weeks ago, Palma’s mayor, José Hila, offered his review of the summer season. It had gone “reasonably well”, he remarked, before moving on to the specific issue of cruise ships. On the Monday of the week when he was reviewing the season, five ships were in port.
Four of them were of the mega variety, and heading the pack was Harmony of the Seas. This ship might more appropriately be named Disharmony of the Seas. The platform against mega-cruise ships was bearing its teeth once more. This group, for many months locked out of protest by the locking down of cruise-ship docking, was now able to again give voice to its opposition - and at full volume.
The mayor’s reasonable summer review came at the time when discussions about limits were being revived. “Right now, and after all we’ve been through, the recovery of cruise activity is good for the city,“ the mayor observed. Such a positive statement was surely not what the no-to-cruise-ships lobby would have wished to hear.
In the corridors of the town hall, there would have been others - members of Més, for example. They may be Hila’s allies in the administration, but the alliance with the mayor’s PSOE party - and not just in Palma - has become ever more strained. The stance over cruise ships is but one reason why.
In June, when cruise-ship activity restarted, the tourism minister, Iago Negueruela, a PSOE colleague of Hila’s, said that reactivation was the important thing. For retailers, for restaurants, for coach operators, for workers returning to their jobs; the ships were important for all of them. Negueruela was part of a welcoming committee to greet the first cruise ship to arrive in Palma for fifteen months - TUI’s Mein Schiff 2.
Flak flew in his direction for sending out the wrong message of a return to dependence on tourism and for having been a member of a “political entourage”. The minister’s involvement was “excessive”, stated Neus Truyol, the Més councillor for the model of the city in Palma and the likely Més candidate to be mayor in 2023. She, for one, would have been dissatisfied when Hila, four months later, made an apparently positive remark about cruise ships.
Last week, Negueruela said that little time was left to negotiate an agreement regarding a limit on the number of cruise ships. This is urgent, as otherwise there will be no limits in 2022. He added that agreement between the town hall and the Balearic government was the only possible tool available. There are no legal instruments, it would appear. And there we were, thinking that the Balearic Ports Authority was the body with the power.
As it is not, the matter is one for two institutions which themselves can’t agree. This is more apparent at the town hall, as was signalled in October when Hila spoke about recovery of cruise tourism being good for the city and in June when Truyol was critical of Negueruela’s welcoming committee.
The minister, for his part, does genuinely seem to agree that there is a need for limits, but how far would he be willing to go? Moreover, how much would he be prepared to bend to wishes for limits that Més and Podemos have? The agreements for government between the three parties established the principle of there being limits, but no number was ever put on this.
To me, it was clear from what Hila said six weeks ago that there was going to be political disagreement at the town hall. And sure enough, there is. He followed up a few days ago by saying that four to five ships per day, so long as they weren’t all of the mega variety, would be a good option.
Truyol has reacted by saying that this would be unacceptable. The Més position is said to be a maximum of 6,000 passengers per day, which might mean two ships or conceivably just the one. The government, meanwhile, believes that five a day would be too many.
So, where do the negotiations go from here? While not doubting Negueruela’s support for limits, one wonders if he and his PSOE colleagues might just prefer to run down the clock, forget about limits for 2022 and return to it in 2023, which is when, of course, there are elections.
In electoral terms, however, are cruise ships much of an issue? In Palma they may be. But elsewhere? The attention paid to cruise ships and cruise tourism, while these form part of the wider debate about the tourism model, climate change and so on, is essentially a Palma affair. This said, where interest away from Palma may well be strongest is in those parts of the island that get the excursions and where the same tensions between local business and residents complaining of saturation exist as in Palma.
Will there be limits in 2022? We will soon know.