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Antoni Riera Font

SPAIN - Economy

Antoni Riera Font

Technical Director, Fundació Impulsa Balears

Bio

Antoni Riera Font is Technical Director of Fundación Impulsa Balears and a professor of applied economics at the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB). Much of his academic career has been linked to the Research Group on Economic Analysis of the Impacts of Tourism (AEIT) and the Centre de Recerca Econòmica (CRE), from where he has directed several publications and developed contracts and research projects financed with European, state, or regional funds in the field of environmental economics and regional economics. He is the author of more than 50 articles published in internationally renowned journals. He has also received several awards and is currently a member of several entities and editorial boards.

"We have focused on fostering positive leadership to accelerate transitions, particularly in the digital, energy, demographic and ecological spheres."
TBY talks to Antoni Riera Font, Technical Director of Fundació Impulsa Balears, about promoting Mallorca, productivity, and expectations for the island’s economy in the coming years.
What projects or initiatives has the Fundació Impulsa Balears launched to promote the economic development of Mallorca?

We have focused on fostering positive leadership to accelerate transitions, particularly in the digital, energy, demographic and ecological spheres. Therefore, we are committed to moving towards a circular tourism system. In this task, we have outlined a vision-region that points to a regenerative future by 2050. And we have put new strategic knowledge available to companies and administrations as a ‘baseline assessment’ to identify the main gaps and challenges to be faced and a ‘monitoring system’ to give direction and speed to circulating transition. We have also projected the best practices of the region through our showroom. The circular transition is a strategic challenge that requires strong governance and intelligence.

Trends such as sustainability, circular economy, green tourism and regenerative tourism are gaining visibility. How do you see them evolving on the islands?

Trends often lead to the indiscriminate use of attractive adjectives such as green, sustainable or regenerative. They are not synonyms. We focus specifically on regenerative tourism, which seeks not only to minimize the negative impacts of tourism (green tourism) or neutralize them (sustainable tourism), but also to restore and even improve the social and environmental capital of the islands. The circular economy is not just a word for us; It is a committed path towards tangible transition. Adopting the principles of the circular economy allows the Balearic Islands to significantly advance its current tourism model, which recognizes its adverse social and environmental impacts. In the Balearic Islands, tourism transcends sectors and markets; It is a holistic system. Globally, adopting circular economy principles is imperative to operate with a broader and more regenerative capacity. We have proposed to consolidate tourism leadership of Balearic Islands by introducing legislative changes, such as the Circular Economy Law, and promote good circular practices among enterprises.

Although all economic sectors are considered important and strategic, which ones would Fundació Impulsa Balears highlight?

In the new circular paradigm, the importance of a sector is not determined solely by its capacity to create wealth or employment, but by its efficiency in the use of resources and materials. Among the 11 sections of activity identified, the productivity of the Balearic Islands only exceeds the Spanish average in these three. There is a high margin for improvement, even in these three. Therefore, all economic activities can and should contribute to the necessary boost in productivity. Only in this way Balearic Islands will be able to grow in value and abandon growth by volume. We must abandon once and for all the conventional and reductionist perspective, focused on a purely vision of the tourism market and measurement of volumes (or influx records), to move towards a holistic vision of the tourism system and continuous monitoring of economic value, social and environmental that the Balearic Islands are capable of creating from the exciting phenomenon of tourism.

Given that the Balearic economy has returned to pre-pandemic levels, what is your assessment of the evolution of the economy for the coming years?

After the pandemic, the main focus of companies and administrations was on recovering the growth or GDP levels of 2019, a milestone reached in 2023. Once this milestone has been reached, our attention now shifts to more ambitious objectives: recovering levels of well-being. It is not about recovering the GDP per capita of 2019 but rather what the Balearic Islands had in 2000. During the last twenty years, the Balearic economy, despite having grown above the Spanish and European average (1.6% annually), has eroded its level of well-being year after year (-0.4% annually). I have no doubt that in 2024 the Balearic Islands, despite concerns about inflationary pressures, will once again grow above the Spanish and European average, with a rate close to 2%. It is time, therefore, to focus on well-being. It cannot be ignored that the Balearic Islands have progressively lost positions in the regional ranking of per capita income of the EU-27 over the last two decades, going from position 46, in 2001, to 95, in 2019, and 110, the year 2022.

How do you evaluate the state of competitiveness?

The Balearic Islands maintain a low competitive position in the ranking of European regions. Specifically, it occupies position 153 out of 234 EU regions. It is necessary to promote competitiveness, especially in levers such as higher education, labor market efficiency and business sophistication in which the Balearic Islands maintain a great differential with Europe. Achieving this goal requires a revised growth approach, emphasizing efficiency in resource use over intensive use of greater volumes of labor, infrastructure, tourists or natural resources. We must follow the example of the main European regions.

The social impact of tourism is a current trend. How does it affect the island and how does Fundació Impulsa Balears measure its impact?

We must consciously consider the social and environmental ramifications of economic and tourism activities; ignoring them is not an option. There is a serious risk of entering into a dynamic of irreversible processes, which could put economic activity itself at risk. As the limits of carrying capacity are reached, it is imperative to take bold decisions to safeguard the viability of the economic activities that generate such impact. To effectively address these effects, a productivity “revolution” needs to be carried out. There is no other way to ensure long-term growth, sustainably improve wages, working conditions and living standards, and decouple economic growth from intensive consumption of materials and resources. Although social discourse often appeals to the need to decrease, it is important to distinguish the growth of economic activity in material terms and in monetary terms: the former, of course, collides with the limits of the planet. The second, on the other hand, is possible, as long as material growth is decoupled from monetary growth (or GDP). Or, as some say, if GDP growth dematerializes. We are in this process!

What initiatives should all market sectors, and the tourism sector in particular, take to move towards regenerative tourism?

We have proposed objectives, lines of action and estimated the financial efforts that are necessary to promote this transition. However, before addressing its implementation, it is imperative to align all actors and sectors, including economic actors, social representatives and politicians. Without clear alignment, no matter how well-intentioned these actions are by some companies, nothing will be achieved. Given the current critical juncture characterized by environmental and social tensions, our approach is even more crucial. Under normal conditions, a set of individual actions can produce positive results, but in these difficult times, it is necessary to take a systemic approach.

The Board of Trustees of the Fundació Impulsa Balears has launched a declaration to place productivity at the center of the competitive strategy. What effects do you expect it will have on the business community?

The Foundation’s board of trustees accounts for 18% of the Balearic GDP and 17% of employment. If the trustees together with the administrations are able to deploy actions and projects in favor of productivity, the beneficial effects of the transition will be visible in a few years. The next few months will be essential to determine the traction of the proposal among other interested parties (unions, business associations…) and their degree of commitment.

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