Nine EU countries presented a joint statement calling for the adoption of a European tourism recovery plan. The news barely made the headlines. On the contrary, the press, which is becoming increasingly narcotic, tells us that there will be a return to family tourism, which is essentially national, as if little had happened. But the data and economic history tell us otherwise.
The “Spanish miracle”
According to the latest official data, tourism contributes 12.3% of Spanish GDP and 12.7% of total employment. Spain and Portugal are, every year, the countries in which the sector represents a higher percentage of the GDP. Although there is no official data, it is very likely that at the beginning of this year it practically doubled as a percentage compared to tourism’s part in the Italian GDP.
The historical reasons are well known. Already sure of its insertion in the American bloc, in 1959 Spanish capitalism began, with the famous “Stabilization Plan”, an accelerated process of capitalization under the strict political-social control of Franco’s dictatorship. The European markets would gradually open up until 1992 (single European market), but at first exports were concentrated in a primary sector that had a more limited horizon and margins. Spanish fixed capital was precarious and obsolete and the priority was to obtain foreign currency with which to buy the technologies that would allow “modernization”, that is to say, increase labor productivity, for the Spanish bourgeoisie. This injection of foreign currency was already growing since the mid-1950s thanks to the first European tourism attracted by much lower prices than those of the rest of the continent, and was boosted by the convertibility of the peseta from 1959 onwards.
The first million visitors were recorded in 1951 and absolute increases were very rapid: 2,522,402 in 1955, 6,113,255 in 1960, 14,251,428 in 1965, 24,105,312 in 1970 and 30,122,478 in 1975. According to data provided by official statistics, the number of visitors had increased 12-fold in 20 years. An equivalent development had taken place with income: the $296.5 million recorded in 1960 had increased tenfold in 1973, reaching $3,216.1 million.
“The Boom of European Tourism in the Spain of the 1960s”, Esther M. Sánchez
“Country of waiters”
And the “Spanish miracle” begins: Spanish capital grows at a similar pace to that of Germany and France until the oil crisis. The distance will then increase again until the policies of industrial reconversion of the PSOE government and the principle of massive precarization, give a new impulse that will last until the crisis of 92.The gap then widens slightly again… until the crisis of 2008 which finally opens up the gap to the current situation.
One of the classic clichés of the Spanish left – which, like the bourgeoisie itself, identifies modernization of capital with progress – is that the Spanish drama is a short-sighted orientation of the national capital that would have made Spain a “country of waiters”.
However, with the data in hand, what we see is a bourgeoisie that makes up for the lack of export capacity with tourist services with such success that it manages to make its capital grow at a similar speed to the German one for decades, increasing exploitation in relative terms during the good times and recovering during recessions by increasing absolute exploitation and triggering precarization. And so, in the second half of the 20th century, the Spanish bourgeoisie went from being a poor cousin of what was still called the “European third world” in 1975, to leading a relatively successful imperialism with its own space in Ibero-America.
As can also be seen in the graph, as the tendency to crisis, permanent in the current historical stage becomes more and more present, competition worsens between the Mediterranean bourgeoisies among themselves and with Germany. Each increase in the differentials makes even more attractive for investments those capitals which are better off, placing them even in a better relative situation compared to the capitals who were left behind in the following bite of the crisis. The tendencies of capital accumulation to increase the distance between competing capitals are becoming increasingly clear. And with them, the violence of the attacks on the living conditions of the workers is manifested proportionally, since it is no longer just a question of recovering growth but of recovering the lost distance from the strongest capitals.
In this long-running race towards mass pauperization and precarization, tourism was never an option that Spanish capital could do without. If anything, it was its vanguard: a “flexible”, atomized and precarious labor power, export capacity, successful concentration in large hotel groups centralized by the banks, export of capital to half of America in the form of “resorts”… and inevitably financialization and speculation. What alternative uses of capital could have been developed to that profitability in the peripheries, the fishing villages and the islands?
Spanish capital has lost a limb
For Spanish capital, the fall in tourism is not a “social problem”… it is losing a limb and heading for a deficit in the trade balance that will accelerate the trend towards the devaluation of national capital, as happened in 2009. With one difference: in 2011 tourism had already surpassed the 2008 income level, the last year of “prosperity”, because a good part of the big Spanish hotel groups had managed to survive the financial crisis. In 2022, when tourism is expected to recover, it is very likely that a large part of the sector will have gone bankrupt or sold its assets at a loss.
Workers and the crash in tourism
And again the question: what alternative application could Spanish capital find to obtain a similar amount of export earnings? None. The Spanish bourgeoisie’s obsession with “reducing dependence on tourism” is like a trout from a stream dreaming of reducing its dependence on water. It would be desirable for it not to suffocate during every drought. But it cannot change millions of years of evolution at will.
As in 2009, the only way to recover export capacity within its reach is to lower real wages so that sales can be made more cheaply. With the world market at a minimum and without tourism, that means a much stronger blow than in 2009. For Spanish capital, the alternative to the “country of waiters” is a country of unemployed and ultra-precarized people earning less than the current minimum wage.
During the health crisis we are witnessing a brutal choice between saving lives and saving investments. And there has been no lack of impudence on the part of the spokespersons of capital to assert, in the midst of the massacre, the priority of capital over human life. The needs of capital are increasingly antagonistic to universal human needs. In “reconstruction” that is not going to change. Instead of contagion we will be talking about wages, instead of hospital beds and working conditions. But in the end, time and again we will be in the same: needs of capital exposed as “economic laws” against universal human needs exposed as universal workers’ demands.