The first days of June dawned in a Spain hushed by the coronavirus pandemic. By then, more than 27,000 Spaniards had died of COVID-19, and the country was midway through a 10-day mourning period honoring their lives. Flags flickered at half mast. Families, faces covered, grieved beside newly built tombs.
On Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, whitewashed hotels stood empty in the spring sunshine. Since the middle of March, when the archipelago’s airports snapped shut, the nearby beaches had been devoid of tourists. The economic downturn has deepened the pandemic’s toll.
“We have about 200,000 jobs that depend on tourism,” says Rosana Morillo, the director general of tourism in the Balearic Islands. Roughly 25 percent of the islands’ economy comes directly from tourism, Morillo estimates; add the indirect impact, and the number is closer to 35 percent.
The pandemic has meant a devastating loss of income on the archipelago, and for some, ushering back visitors has been a top priority. But visitation cuts both ways in the Balearic Islands, where high-rise resorts cater to crowds looking for sun-splashed beaches and free-flowing drinks. To many locals, tourism is an economic boon that’s become a crushing burden.
Long before overtourism became a pressing concern from Barcelona to Venice, the Balearic Islands were a byword for a travel industry run amok. When tourism researchers refer to out-of-control development that values short-term profit over sustainability, they call it balearización.
Suddenly, amid the pandemic’s heartbreak and loss, islanders got an unexpected glimpse of a different life.
A time of quiet
It was a few weeks after the tourists left Mallorca when Pere Tomas walked out on his apartment terrace and saw the massive dark wings of a cinereous vulture wheeling high above. Tomas, a local guide who leads nature tours, made a note of it. Locked down and out of work, he was tracking resurgent wildlife on an island hushed by the pandemic.
“We could see very rare species that before we had only seen very far in the countryside,” he says. “There was less disturbance everywhere.”
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.
With the drone of sightseeing boats silenced, fishermen reeled nets from gin-clear bays to the sound of wind and waves. On the island’s northern edge, photographer Pep Bonet hiked mountain pathways where, instead of German and English, he heard the shushed consonants of the archipelago’s own Mallorquín dialect.
“Walking the beaches was incredible,” recalls professor Julio Batle, who reveled in pristine sand free of the partying crowds that this Mediterranean island is known for. “Even when I was a kid, there were too many tourists, so it was a new situation,” says Batle, who studies sustainable tourism and economics at the Universitat de les Illes Balears. “It was strange, and beautiful.”
It’s also a stark contrast from the usual scene on Mallorca, where the sheer scale of pre-pandemic tourism was overwhelming. Some 11.8 million visitors flooded Mallorca in 2019, dwarfing the local population of under a million. The cost of living has skyrocketed, a trend aggravated by the conversion of family homes into vacation rentals.
Environmental impacts have been grave. Tourism pushed water usage to the brink. Developments chewed into fragile hillsides, and planes plus vast fleets of rental cars generated air pollution that left some locals in masks long before the pandemic began.
On a hot July day in 2017, planes passed through Mallorca’s Son Sant Joan airport at a record-breaking rate of one every 90 seconds. It’s no surprise the cinereous vultures stayed away.
How tourism devoured the island
An observer, taking in Mallorca’s ivory-colored beaches and turquoise coves, might easily see the island’s double-edged tourism industry as inevitable, the simple arithmetic of sun, sand, and sea. But the scale of tourism here isn’t haphazard: It’s the product of intentional development.
In the 1950s, Spain’s fascist regime saw tourism as a sorely needed source of revenue; the isolated government was hungry for foreign currency. Officials loosened the borders and encouraged beach development.
In Mallorca, hotels ballooned in size, eventually leaving Palma—the island’s capital—fenced in by high-rises built to attract budget travelers in the largest possible numbers. Cruise tourism has followed the same steep growth curve, with some 500 ships carrying 2 million passengers arriving in Palma each year.
But in recent years, many locals have pointed out that if mass tourism was a choice, it’s not too late to choose something else.
The local government seems to agree, expressing interest in a more sustainable model. In 2016, a tourist tax was introduced to raise funds for environmental restoration. Resort towns have cracked down on the tourist misbehavior that most wearies islanders, hoping to trade partiers for families interested in local culture.
Can the future be different?
For now, Mallorca has largely escaped the worst of the virus, with under 2,300 confirmed cases as of July 17. And despite the terrible toll of the pandemic on both lives and livelihoods globally, some residents are wondering if it might also present a chance to remake tourism on a smaller scale that favors meaningful encounters over the masses.
“I ask locals ‘how many of you have had the chance to spend quality time with tourists?’” explains Batle, the researcher. He says that few people he meets have had those authentic, one-on-one interactions. It’s a problem of scale, and one that Batle believes the pandemic could help upend. “The window is open for changes.”
“I think the pandemic is going to change all of our lives,” agrees Morillo, the director general of tourism. Nightclubs and boozy beach parties already seem like relics in a world grappling with infection. And it’s clear that the scale of tourism will be sharply reduced for the foreseeable future. Even the most optimistic observers think that just 50 percent of Palma hotels will open by the end of July.
As travelers start returning to the islands, Morillo hopes they’ll seek out natural landscapes and local culture, swapping coastal megaresorts for cycling through the mountains, stargazing, and sampling the gastronomy scene.
Or birdwatching. After months of lockdown, naturalist Pere Tomas finally left his apartment to lead a birdwatching tour in early June, guiding a British couple deep into the Albufera wetlands, where they saw endangered red-knobbed coots and a rare squacco heron.
Pandemic or not, thousands of migratory birds will return to these wetlands in the fall. Tourists have come back even sooner; the first planeloads of German vacationers touched down in mid-June. To try to avoid any virus outbreaks, the Balearics made masks mandatory in public places (but not the beach), as of July 13. And after a few recent incidents with drunken tourists, authorities shut down Palma’s main party strip. With clubs and discos closed, there’s an opening to discover a different side of island life.
Even after decades of intense tourism, many locals agree that it is Mallorca’s wildness that retains the power to astonish visitors—at least those willing to go beyond the most densely developed parts of the coast. “They get here and they see that actually there are big open spaces,” says longtime resident Timothy Pennell.
He runs La Serranía retreat in the UNESCO-listed Serra de Tramuntana mountains of northern Mallorca, a steep landscape shaped by thousands of years of small-scale farming. Stone-walled terraces cascade down hillsides knit together by olive groves and fruit orchards.
Speaking from his home in the middle of June, Pennell panned his camera phone across a landscape gone lush with spring. Heat hazed the view, and a mountain breeze stirred the leaves. Sheep grazed in the background.
“It’s quiet,” he said. Many here hope that a little of that quiet will remain.
Editor’s Note: For some images in this story, the photographer used infrared technology, which records wavelengths longer than those visible by the human eye. This kind of photography requires infrared film or a fully converted digital camera, in this case a Nikon Z7 mirrorless.
Based in Vermont, Jen Rose Smith has written travel articles for Fodor’s, CNN, and Outside. In 2018 she lived in Catalonia for three months. Follow her on Instagram.