Tourism and local communities – connections between Scotland and Majorca

Published: 29 April 2024

Dr Guillem Colom-Montero has been looking at the island of Majorca in Spain and the Scottish Highlands and Western Islan to gauge the impacts of tourism, particularly in the last decade, where the industry has become the main focus of public and political debate.

The island of Majorca in Spain and the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles would not on the face of it seem to have much in common.

They are hundreds of miles away from each other. They have radically different climates and speak different languages. Yet the impacts of tourism in both Scotland and Spain in the last decade are felt in similar ways by local communities, according to research being undertaken by an academic at the University of Glasgow.

Dr Guillem Colom-Montero has been looking at both countries to gauge the impacts of tourism, particularly in the last decade, where the industry has become the main focus of public and political debate.

Local community associations, particularly in Majorca, have been overly critical of the effects that tourism is having on housing, public services, jobs, landscape, and the environment as well as linguistic and cultural sustainability. They see the island being totally overwhelmed by the influx of visitors – Majorca is home to one million residents and receives more than 12 million tourists annually. Now tourism is being described as a “devastating,” “unsustainable force” by community leaders which is rapidly transforming the island’s environment, landscape, and territory as well as its sociocultural fabric.

Tourism is seen as the main cause of the locals’ inaccessibility to housing due to the rapidly increasing prices both in urban and rural areas as well as of the strain on public services and roads due to overcrowding, in particular during the summer months. Residents also complain of the working conditions and low salaries offered in the tourism industry and are particularly critical of vacation rentals and the recent boom of residential tourism and second homes, which has led to a housing crisis.

Dr Colom-Montero, a Lecturer at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow, whose University of Glasgow’s Stories from Glasgow Podcast is launched today, said: “Tourism has triggered such overarching transformations at all social, cultural and economic levels that Majorcans no longer recognise the island, don’t feel they belong and at times even feel expelled.

“Majorcan culture has seen a mushrooming of creative, literary, and cultural responses to overtourism, including fiction, poetry, travelogues, documentary film, drama, political cartooning, and a body of cultural production by grassroots activism. These creations represent tourism through narratives and vocabularies of colonialism, invasion, destruction, illness, malaise, and collective trauma.”

“This acutely critical perspective suggests a culturally traumatic experience associated to the environmental and sociocultural effects of mass tourism on Majorca. It is fascinating to see parallels with Scotland, where communities are also facing similar problems and are now beginning to find their voices against mass-tourism and its impact on their local areas.”

Margalida Ramis is the president of GOB, the largest environmentalist association in the Balearic Islands, who told Dr Colom-Montero during interviews conducted for his research: “The main problem is Majorca’s total economic dependence on tourism, which I would define as a ‘monocrop;’ which is why it seems impossible to keep its detrimental impacts in check.”

Dr Colom-Montero said: ‘The situation is remarkably similar in the Canary Islands, where more than 60,000 people took to the streets recently to demand a change of the tourism model. This has been the largest demonstration ever to take place in the Canaries and, like in the Balearics, demonstrators also called to limit property sales to non-residents.”

Toni Pallicer, an activist from the grassroots collective Tot inclòs, emphasises the huge transformations triggered by the post-pandemic explosion of property purchases by non-residents and added: “While overcrowding used to be seasonal and in specific areas, it has now become the norm all over the island and all year round. Overall, there is a clear feeling that a tipping point has been reached.”

This is a view shared by certain industry stakeholders and large hotel companies – in January, the CEO of Riu Hotels & Resorts, one of the largest chains on the island and the 30th globally, went as far as proposing a referendum on tourism numbers.

This is a comparable situation being faced in parts of Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and Western Isles.

Last year, Dr Colom-Montero started analysing residents’ reactions to tourism in Scotland. In May 2023, he visited the isle of Barra, where he screened the Majorcan documentary film Overbooking (2019), which revolves around the impacts of mass tourism on the island, in the Barra Learning Centre and Castlebay Community School.

The screenings were followed by a lively debate and, while the intensity was seen as smaller, the responses were quite telling: ‘all these issues ring a bell here,’ while another resident said it now felt like they were living in a ‘theme park.’

Dr Colom-Montero said: “Both Barra and Majorca, the Hebrides, and the Balearics, are remote, fragile island-environments in which rural imaginaries are still very much present in the everyday life experience of the local population. The sudden and comprehensive transformations experienced in recent years are felt in dramatic ways in both regions, which share the historical link between landscape, community identity and language, Gaelic in the Hebrides, and Catalan in the Balearics.”

Gail Anthea Brown, a writer from Caithness who, after watching Overbooking online, said: “There are many parallels in this documentary with feelings around tourism in the Highlands & Islands. Majorcan residents' concerns around the impacts of tourism are mirrored across our communities, who have been negatively affected by initiatives such as the North Coast 500, and the increasing portrayal of rural areas as travel destinations rather than places where people live. It was particularly interesting to note the documentary's caution around the development of 'alternative' tourism streams, such as slow, immersive, and off-season travel, which, without restriction in other areas, adding up to more unsustainable tourism. The Majorcan experience should be a cautionary tale for the Highlands and Islands, where overtourism has all too often left communities feeling powerless and overwhelmed.”

Toni Pallicer says Majorca has seen a massive increase of ‘estate agents focusing on non-residents, usually from Northern Europe,’ who ‘buy a property to spend short spells on the island and live isolated from the local community, don’t build the place or join the social fabric.’

On Skye in Scotland, it would appear to be the same. Theatre-maker Daniel Cullen from Portree wrote the play ‘The Chariot, the Flag and the Empty, Empty Houses’ after working for three years with community groups tackling rural housing problems in Skye and Lochalsh.

Speaking to Dr Colom-Montero, Mr Cullen said: “Tourism is the only show in town, and this has clear impacts on jobs and housing: most hospitality posts are low-paid and temporary, and the huge expansion of second homes and short-term lettings pushes local people out. In the past people left Skye for jobs, now there are more jobs than people because people cannot afford to live here. It now feels like you are being forbidden to live where you are from.”


Stories from Glasgow - Overtourism

Dr Guillem Colom-Montero’s College of Arts & Humanities at the University of Glasgow podcast series – Stories from Glasgow is available via this University of Glasgow website page.

Stories from Glasgow podcast series

You can listen into the full series of Stories from Glasgow podcasts highlighting the research and work of academics from across the College of Arts & Humanities at the University of Glasgow via the follow podcast website page 

First published: 29 April 2024