Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Germans are Coming! Mallorca

Intrepid Balearic Island traveler Greg Gottsacker breaking
the all-inclusive mold. Photo: G. Gottsacker.
Though the Chinese recently dethroned the Germans as top cumulative spenders on tourism, they remain the top per capita spenders on the planet when it comes to travel. In true German fashion, their vacations also tend to be extremely organized, and often pre-packaged. So with 2013's Urlaubsaison in full swing, there is no better time for us to go on a blog-cation and take a journey to perhaps the most Cherman place outside of central Europe: Mallorca and the Balearic Islands (they even have a site-specific newspaper called Mallorca Zeitung!). As much as I wanted to write an assumption and stereotype-filled post based solely on second-hand experiences and hearsay, I decided it would be a much wiser (and funnier) idea to invite the first guest writer to All Sinks Cherman. The esteemed Greg Gottsacker is a long-time friend, a fellow German enthusiast, and has been living and working in France for well over a half decade. He has also experienced first-hand the beauty – but also the Teutonic resortification – of Mallorca and the Balearics. So without further ado...

(enter stage right, Herr Gottsacker)

My first experience with Germany and its fascination with proximate travel destinations like the Balearic Islands came when I first arrived in Germany in February 1999. I had already studied German for 3 years in high school, and I turned up in Stuttgart at the age of 16 with a language tool box full of adjective endings, limited vocabulary and pretty decent grammar. My host family immediately began discussing the ensuing months of my stay and clearly stated that we needed to decide very quickly on our May holidays. They asked for my input and asked where I would like to go. The options all started with 'M' and were less than 1000 km away from each other as the crow flies. They were Mallorca, Minorca, or Morocco. As if a 16 year old from the States knew any of these? Without sounding too overly stereotypical and like a naïve American, I think I was able to figure out that Morocco was a country of some kind in Africa, but that Spain had mini-holiday colonies planted in the Mediterranean...I was frantically looking at a map. It is honestly not every day that Ami teens are planning two-week holidays in exotic places, or that we are even aware of Spanish islands. Spain is like Mexico right? “Greg, you don’t know Mallorca?? – it is ze 17th state of Chermany!” joked my host brother. It’s funny how you can study German language and culture in a classroom in Wisconsin for three years, but you lack the cultural reference points that are ever so pertinent to becoming a functioning human in that host country. We opted for Morocco on this trip and spent two weeks driving around the desert in a coach bus with diarrhea, listening to our guide Mohamed speak flawless German to a pack of culture-hungry Swabians and Bavarians. Oh the imagery. Ever since that trip, I was determined to discover our other travel options in the Balearics.

That entire semester, I became fascinated by these not-so-mysterious Spanish islands. Further “Mallorca” cultural references spilled out during the course of the year. The release of the film “Ballermann 6” in 1997 continued to have its effects on the German nation, and no doubt on my classy demographic—the 17-year-old boy. Cheap booze, sun, bikinis, beach-party, and freedom were the eye-popping themes of the movie, not to mention a major critique of the German and allgemein – or mass – tourism boom of the Balearic Islands. Hordes of graduation groups flocked to Palma de Mallorca each year to celebrate their hard-earned Abi (high school graduation), and party one last time with the boys or schoolmates before the ambitious youth ran off to their obligatory Zivildienst or Military Service. However, it was not only high school seniors traveling for their class graduation trip, but young families, college students, people on package tours, and sport tourists that inundated the Spanish islands. The accessibility of the islands was and still is astonishing. Direct flights from Stuttgart to Palma, twice daily? (Think Milwaukee-Cancun-direct!) These images of party, party, party stayed in my mind for many years and it became, unfortunately, yet another stereotype that you can group in with Hasselhof, Bier, Lederhosen, and fancy Autos. Germans love Mallorca.

Germans awaiting their morning Animator to tell them what
activities they have to do. Photo: G. Gottsacker.
It is evident that Germans love to travel, and there certainly was a boom in the late 90s. I returned again to Germany in 2002 for another year of studies, and the destinations hadn’t changed dramatically. The proof was in the newspaper promotions, travel agency windows, and the then-growing Internet sites. The Balearics were still the #1 hot-spot, and the centerpiece of sub-cultural jokes and references of Bild-Zeitung-reading Germans going to “Spain” on holiday. My curiosity and desire for a week-long, sun-soaked German-Spanish jag continued to heighten. In fact it probably peaked as I was 20 years old, however that nasty cultural voice inside me told me to avoid Mallorca and engage in a more rounded and enlightening experience. I went to Amsterdam instead.

Finally, 13 years after finding out about Mallorca, I made it down there. Ultimately, I didn’t go down there with the “lads on tour” for a giant piss-up and the hopes of frivolity, but rather by myself with a desire for serenity. In 2011, I booked a 5-night, 6-day trip (hotel, flight, and transfers included) to Mallorca for 389 Euros. To be fair, I was neither in the heart of the party scene in Palma nor the famous beaches of Ballermann, but rather chose a quieter, northern bay called Alcudia. The hotel was still packed with Germans (and Brits), but the region was much more family-focused than the stereotype to which I had become accustomed. In fact, this hotel was probably filled with more Brits than Germans; however, I must note that every staff member’s first foreign language was German if they were not already German themselves. I had found some kind of compromise between the single inebriated party-life and the calm, organized family vacation. The peace and quiet was there if I needed it, yet there were bars and restaurants at a stone’s throw for social interaction. The bars and restaurants offered “English Breakfast, German Frühstück,” and several thousand menu items to satisfy any Anglo traveler. No Tapas here my friend: only burgers, pizza, nuggets, and pommes frites.

The hotel was even staffed with real live Germans. The Animators and organizers – tasked with doing all of the strenuous activity planning the Germans and Brits had paid good money to escape – were all German (see photo above). I decided not to partake in Pool-Aerobics taught daily by the sun-burnt animator Lydia from Köln, but managed to fill my days autonomously by exploring the northern coast and some of the interior villages. I even managed to golf 36 holes that week, all by myself in the hot Mallorca sun. I brushed up on my Spanish with a short-hand cook from Morocco (Spanish Morocco, so my French failed me here) while watching Barcelona and Madrid battle in 3 Classicos in one week. After all this exploring, I realized that Mallorca offers a lot more than the stereotype story shows its viewers. However, I was the hotel rebel, the guest who refused the breakfast buffets, open bar, and daily events organized by the staff animators. In fact, the only time I took full advantage of the hotel’s amenities was daily at about 8pm, when I hit the open bar for a full hour before picking up Lydia the sun-burnt animator to go to a British bar and meet Mohamed.

8 am poolside, just before the "Towel Drop"
So maybe I was not the standard guest at the hotel, taking advantage of every item detailed in the all-inclusive package. I mean, I already got a flight and hotel room for 389 Euros—can’t I splurge a bit and try some local cuisine and cross the threshold of the gates of Hotel Lagotel? There is indeed some comfort provided for the masses that wish to remain safe within the confines of Lagotel, however. The fact that you don’t even have to reflect each morning on what activities to undertake is already half the battle. Already at 8am you can see little zombie families lining up at the animator table as if to say: “Tell us what we have to do today.” This process seems automated and sans emotion. “Why don’t you just tell me what I am doing today?” I admit, I couldn’t refuse the 9am pistol shooting with the English dads (with pints of course).

8 am poolside: breakfast finished and the chaise
lounge safely reserved for a strenuous day of
German news in the shade. Photo: G. Gottsacker.
For those that wish to just lounge and read by the pool without leaving the hotel or…well moving, there is the now famous process which I call the “Towel Drop”. After observing Brits and Germans at this hotel in Mallorca and another in Ibiza, I can now empirically say that this phenomenon has its origins in the Germanic peoples. In order to reserve your chaise lounge poolside, hotel guests will actually skip the snooze on the alarm clock, go drop off their towels and Bild Zeitung on a chaise lounge, all before they go eat breakfast. I heard more than one argument “Nein, Ich war hier zuerst, schau mal meine Zeitung da, Handtuch ist da!” ("No, I was here first, look at the newspaper there, and my towel!").

After visiting Mallorca and Ibiza, it is obvious that these islands have been developed by German tourist developers. It is however more interesting to ask the question why the Germans, and why the Balearics? Why had not the French, the English, Dutch, or even the Spanish developed these islands? One particular argument is the fact the Germany has no colonies (or fewer comparatively to other said countries) to exploit. History students can attest to the fact that Germany was never a colonial powerhouse due largely to an undeveloped Navy in the 1800’s and a very consuming occupation with unifying its own nation.

The Indian Ocean is the Mediterranean Sea
of the future, says Herr Bismarck.
Also, the infrastructure in the airline industry of West Germany was ripe for export. Dozens of small, yet operational and busy airports litter Germany close to clusters of large populations with disposable income, for example Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Köln, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Bonn, München, Berlin, Basel. R.J. Buswell's "Mallorca and Tourism: History, Economy and Environment" traces this Germanification of the Balearics.

This might be oversimplistic; however, there is much truth to Germany being late to the colonial game. Bismarck was notorious for having little colonial drive and allowing other nations to occupy themselves “down there” in Africa and Asia while his idea of nation-building and reform remained internal within the geographic territory of a (finally) unified Germany. Other eco-political reasons behind the development of the Balearic Islands stems from the 1970s during the economic crisis that brought increasing oil prices, a weak stock market, and the death of El Generalisimo Franciso Franco in 1975. All of these factors shocked Spain with declining tourist numbers and some serious concerns about their English tourist investors, forcing hotels and travel agencies to hedge their risks and turn to West Germany as a second option. It wasn’t actually until the 1990s that German visitors actually surpassed the English in Mallorca.

Whatever German recipe worked in the Balaeric Islands seems to be working elsewhere as well. A newer, secondary wave of the German mass tourism formula has proven successful in Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. (I have personally been to all). There are German speaking animators at all destinations to greet you and organize your day, as well as cheap booze and sun to help you forget the long, gray springs of the Ruhr. But if you decide to escape from Lagotel and explore on your own, you certainly won’t be disappointed in Mallorca or [insert destination here]. One important piece of advice: never trust clichés. One tirelessly repeated cliché 
These activities weren't on the Animators' lists, but they
were still enjoyable. Photos: G. Gottsacker.
about the “Ballermann 6” beach is that it is an exaggerated party on a concrete beach; a swirling meeting point for sun-burnt Lydias and Fabians to drown themselves in cheap booze and dance to David Guetta. Some of these aspects are true of course, but do not forget that Mallorca is attractive in its own right. I climbed a mountain, golfed, and learned Spanish from a Moroccan man all while being surrounded by fifteen years of presumptions and bias. So drop your towel on the beach, but make sure you do it before breakfast.

Story by Greg Gottsacker