The high price of tourism

    TRAVEL: An idiosyncratic look at the «best and worst place on earth»

    After a year of lockdowns, mask-wearing, and grievous losses to COVID-19, many people in Europe and around the world are looking forward to a holiday.

    With some countries (in Europe notably the UK) forging ahead with successful mass vaccination programmes, the prospect of free foreign travel is once again looming into sight after the unprecedented restrictions of the past year.

    Magaluf Ghost Town, a film by Miguel Ángel Blanca
    Magaluf Ghost Town, a film by Miguel Ángel Blanca


    In Magaluf Ghost Town, director Miguel Ángel Blanca takes a distinctly idiosyncratic look behind the scenes, presenting a strange, nightmarish vision of the purpose-built holiday resort through the eyes of local residents. It is a vision that is both refreshing and unsettling, reminiscent in some ways of a coronavirus nightmare (for those who have experienced the virus you will know what this means.)

    If this reviewer had ever entertained the notion of a holiday in Magaluf (he has not), after watching the film he would certainly never willingly go there. A measure of the reception the filmmakers met can be gauged from one reference in the credits, which under «Thanks» reads: «The good people from Magaluf – the love and hate we received from them confirms that Magaluf is the best and worst place on earth at the same time.»

    Magaluf, on the Spanish Balearic Island of Mallorca, has been a favourite destination of European holidays makers (the English chief among them) since the 1980s, earning a reputation as a cheap sunny getaway location for the young and, often, hot headed. A pleasure island with more bars than beaches has earned it a rather smutty reputation and young Brits have dubbed Magaluf «Shagaluf» in a nod to the casual holiday sex for which it is famed.

    On a more sinister note, it also has a reputation for tourist deaths with half a dozen or so every year – often from the bizarre practice of «balconing» where drunken mostly male holiday makers die after attempting to dive into hotel pools from their balconies.

    With flights in Europe down by as much as 70%-80% compared with 2019, the hunger for holidays as the virus is gradually brought under control is evident in both fervent lobbying by the air travel industry and advertisements for foreign holidays beginning to appear on European TV screens.

    a strange, nightmarish vision of the purpose-built holiday resort through the eyes of local residents.

    The best and worst

    Whether the profound impact of the pandemic changes the way we view holidays, or whether its measurable impact on climate change during the most severe lockdowns spurs a movement towards far less air travel, remains to be seen. But Blanca’s vision of Magaluf as a strange, haunted place that is, as he says, both the best and worst place on earth, is a good starting point for thinking about the impact that the privileged late 20th/early 21st century European notion of a «summer holiday» has on people, places, and the environment.

    The director’s choice of local heroes to tell the alternative story of Magaluf is as idiosyncratic as his title and treatment. There is Maria Teresa, an overweight widow who will die if she does not give up smoking; her African tenant, Cheickne, who has left a wife and daughter behind in his home country to work as a toilet attendant (the perks including relieving drunken holiday makers of drugs and cash); Rubén, a young gay would-be actor who does not want to take on his father’s bar and disco; and Olga, a Russian real estate agent determined to push ahead with an ambitious plan for pushing Magaluf upmarket on the back of new 5 star developments and Russian money.

    With the exception of Cheickne, a teetotal Muslim who is the most sober and responsible of them all, they believe in spirits and indulge in aspects of black magic. Teresa is bothered by the poltergeist spirit of her late husband, whom a medium says has not yet «passed over»; Rubén is obsessed with a story about a man found chained and burned in an abandoned building; and Olga whispers to her daughter Valeria that people can leave the earth but also return.

    It is all a bizarre procession of scenes against a backdrop of drunken young rowdy holidaymakers dancing, vomiting, and shagging their way through their allotted two weeks on the town’s main Sin City drag, the Punta Ballena.

    Magaluf Ghost Town, a film by Miguel Ángel Blanca
    Magaluf Ghost Town, a film by Miguel Ángel Blanca

    European Pottersville
    Blanca’s vision of Magaluf (which he explains in an on-screen preamble, owes its name to an Arab-Berber term Ma Haluf, meaning «filthy waters») is one that squarely imagines the town as a summertime European version of Pottersville in Frank Capra’s classic 1946 family fantasy It’s a Wonderful Life.

    With scenes of robbery, sexual activity, and violence, it is small wonder that some of those that rely upon the resort for their living may have «hated» the filmmakers.

    Screening its World Premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs from April 29, it would be interesting to know when it might get an airing in Magaluf itself.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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