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The Balearics - The Stepping Stones of Mainland Spain

Ben Austin Tuesday, 24 September 2013.

Four islands, owned by Spain, situated between Africa and its occupying mainland; but what does anyone know about this archipelago of islands?

131107benaustininthebalearicssmallUtter the word “Ibiza” to any young Englishman, and in the heat of the Summer he’ll tell you that at least 100 of his facebook friends are there revelling in one of Britain’s adopted overseas clubbing destinations. Utter the word “Magaluf” on British soil, and you’ll get looked at with dismay (assuming the recipient isn’t an 18-30’s holiday obsessionado). Menorca, the most easterly island, was one of Britain’s classic eighties family holiday locations and Formentera, the smallest and most southern lying, is more recently popular with the Arabic world and Italians for being a posey island to dock yachts and look mightily important. The “Monaco of the Balearics”, I am told.

Yet, we all know there’s always more to reality than hearsay. Britain’s bigger than Skegness isn’t it? So, I made it my quest to find out what the Balearics was all about  and what you could expect as a natural stone turner.

Within moments of arriving into Palma de Mallorca, I was greeted by my friend Miguel who is a teacher at a “Second Chance” school in the city, providing education to those that fall out of the mainstream of society. Miguel faces an undetermined future like many in Spain right now as the pressure of job cuts and funding cuts plague the population at large. His face was still bright but any optimism was displayed with caution. He tells me that “the country is showing signs of promise, but the word on the street is that our government has simply run out of money.”

Understanding Spain’s recent two notch downgrade from AA- to A, it appears the global ratings’ agencies tend to agree.

But with recession comes resourcefulness. I gather the average capital required now to start a business across Spain is somewhere around the 30,000 euros mark, whereas a couple of years ago it was near double that. Businesses are still being set up in Spain, they’re just now focusing on what matters and cutting away the fluff. That’s a call that comes with experience, and there’s no greater experience than that endured in tough times.

Whilst I was out there, I understood that those working directly with tourism (one area that has seldom been hit by the recession on these islands) were taking greater advantage of the Summer months. People were also adding value, raising prices, diversifying into new revenue streams and working longer hours (the latter being something that goes against the grain of the Spanish lifestyle). I also witnessed a lot of creative thought amongst the restauranteurs, hotel managers, excursion organisers and trip bookers, etc. Winter might be tough for tourism, but if they harvest enough in the Summer, then they’ll be sitting prettier come the fall. They know all too well that 85% of the islands’ wealth comes from tourism so it really is cash-in time for them. A lesson to us all perhaps? Reap when we’re doing well rather than looking around for pennies to stack when work has dried up makes sound sense to me.

Continuing on my travels in Mallorca, I met a number of foreigners who’d arrived and whom had chosen the island to take advantage of current opportunities – Swedes, Italians, Germans, and as ever, the Brits in numbers. Ironically, in Palma, I met Tom Burns – a fellow Yorkshireman – whose family had taken on a bar as an addition to their growing portfolio back home. Back in England they were doing pretty well, so they wanted to branch out, especially somewhere they could find a good deal. Maybe, like many of the nation powers of today, the way to help growth within is to welcome money into the country from the outside. Investments and opportunism from foreign funds may just be one helpful area of growth, no matter how defiant we are that we can do it alone.

From Mallorca I moved to Menorca, yet this time it was a fleeting affair. In the couple of days spent there, I did manage to meet with a few go-getters. Luis-Enrique and Carlos were part of a consortium of local entrepreneurs, and they too were taking advantage of tourism as their way to stay on top of their rise to wealth. Restaurant refurbishment and boutique hotel accommodation was on their agenda for the next year. Their belief is “if you play to not lose, you probably will.” They’re clearly taking the bull by the horns (no “torro” pun intended).

As I left Menorca, I got talking to a couple of Balearic estate agents whilst in the air. Prices of inter-Balearic flights had climbed significantly in recent times, and whilst you can grab a flight from London Stansted to Mallorca with change in your pocket, a half hour flight from island to island was often costing the locals over a hundred euros a time. The service was getting worse too. I was told that “If our government wants to see businesses thrive, then they need to instruct the institutions we depend on in Spain, not to take the p**s!” I gathered he was disgruntled about government support, to say the least. Something we can all share, I’m sure.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Generally speaking, the Balearics GDP per capita is on par with the EU’s average (despite the discouraging news in the media at present, that’s actually a creditable effort for the islands). The nation, like many other countries, are innovating, especially in entrepreneurship. The likes of Chamberi Valley (an entrepreneurial ecosystem) has been initiated as a helpful tech centre answer to the economic crisis. Several seed investment funds have been set up throughout Spain and in the words of Pablo Villanova, a young travelling internet entrepreneur I met in the Balearics who was originally from Madrid. He said “Spain is a long way behind the UK, Germany, France, and others for start-ups and it needs to change. Why not now?”

So, as my stay came to an end, I finally got myself over to Ibiza for one last jaunt. I spent some time with new friends, and one in particular, Bartu Riera, was an extraordinary chap, putting the economic crisis into perspective by living life as he chooses to. He calls himself the “Ibicenco” (a man whose long distant heritage comes from the island). In the last couple of months, he’s turned from a corporate jackal to one of life’s slower paced tree huggers. He made a statement and opened his doors from January to fall for travellers all over the world to visit his island and stay within his grounds for free. He said “I want to make travelling here an option for those that can’t afford it. Last year I hosted over 105 groups of people with less money in their holiday budgets than years previous. I see that as 105 more people than would have come here if it wasn’t for my hospitality, so that feels good for me.” I felt a charitable spirit exists within Bartu, like many others here on these islands that I’d met. Admirable, no question.

So finally, like Mallorca, I hit every corner of the island and explored territories that even in my wildest dreams, I never thought existed here. The death-defying winding coastal drive of Port de Valldemossa in Mallorca, and the most iconic clifftop view of a formation of rocks at sunset at Es Vedra in Ibiza. A day trip on the ferry to Formentera was explored for one day too, and I threw back the years by opting for a motorbike as my mode of transport. Within 15 minutes, I’d travelled from one side of the island to the other leaving long pristine beaches in my wake. I could go on, but I’d turn this into some lip-salivating attempt of a guide for the Lonely Planet.

Just understand when I say, that it only takes one drive to an unknown destination to ever wonder how on British shores, places like “Magaluf” and “Ibiza” ever become the main buzzword for each island. Its people, its lifestyle, its splendour, its beauty and its character – there’s a story here in the Ballearics and it could have your name on it.

Millions agree, and each year, millions take advantage. Some for memories, some for business.

The Balearics – the stepping stones of mainland Spain.

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Ben Austin

Ben Austin

Ben Austin is a no-nonsense start-up catalyst. Passionate mentor. Creator of brand strategies. But that’s when he’s in the office. When he’s got his shorts on, he’s a travel junkie. He’s a world pen pal. He’s excited about life. You can reach out to him at The Ben Channel or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/thebenchannel

 

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