A theme park for the Brits behaving badly

July 19, 2002

In the second in our summer series on tourism, Hazel Andrews looks at how much of the lewd, boozy, seemingly fancy-free behaviour of many tourists in the area of Majorca known as 'Shagaluf' is actually manufactured in a conservative commercial climate

I passed by the Underground and stopped off in the Robin Hood for a drink. As I headed for the beach, I saw Big Ben. There it was, a familiar British landmark, standing atop a snack bar situated on the road that runs parallel to Magaluf beach. The Underground is one of Magaluf's many nightclubs, and the Robin Hood one of its cafe-bars. It was from this sort of setting that I recently conducted field research on what it means to be British in the Majorcan resort of Magaluf.

A recent Channel 4 TV programme followed the work of the Polic!a Municipal in Magaluf and presented a stereotypical picture of Brits abroad. It depicted four incidents relating to drunken behaviour by young male British tourists. The events involved damage to property, theft, self-injury and fighting. In most cases, the behaviour was justified by the perpetrators as acceptable within the context of a holiday.

Although undoubtedly based on real events, the representations of tourists in such programmes and in the media in general tend to follow cliched notions of the working-class British in the Mediterranean - loud, drunk and vulgar. But many questions are left unanswered by such depictions. To what extent, for example, is this behaviour representative of tourist activity? What does it tell us about the way in which British culture is constructed in such resorts?

During my stay in Magaluf, I did witness behaviour similar to that demonstrated in the TV programme, and not always by the British, although at the time they were the dominant nationality there. But I also witnessed people enjoying a warm, sunny environment playing together as families or friends. And there is plenty to do besides the expected sunbathing: rides on an inflatable banana, paragliding, diving, games in amusement arcades or those organised by hotel entertainers, and excursions to other parts of the island organised by travel agents and tour operators.

All of this takes place in an environment full of the comforts of home - fish and chips, cooked breakfasts, roast dinners, cups of tea, and pints of Boddingtons and Tetley's. It is possible to spend sterling in some shops and café-bars, many of which have familiar British names - The White Horse, The Red Lion, Eastenders, The Willows, Sospan Fach and the Scot's Corner. English is spoken, the Union Jack flies along with Scottish and Welsh flags, and Del Boy's wisecracks can be heard from many television sets. It is a landscape that resonates with images and ideas closely associated with notions of what it is to be British, albeit a particular kind of Britishness.

All the symbols of identity speak of a "Britishness" that is predominately white. The actual machinations of many of the activities also tell us that it is a heterosexual and conformist identity. The ubiquitous presence of the cooked breakfast excludes those who do not eat pork or other meat. The gender divisions highlighted on bar crawls, during which all women are called "Wilma" and all men "Fred", excludes relationships that do not fit the normative male-female partnership. What is perhaps of most interest is that these names are established as part of the rules of the games played on the bar crawls, and that transgression of them is punishable.

The bar crawls are organised by tour operators to show tourists around the nightlife of Magaluf. Tourists pay the operators to join the crawls and are taken to about five bars in an evening. Tour operators choose which bars to visit and get commission from the bars for each tourist they bring.

Tour representatives also use the bar crawls to "befriend" tourists with the aim of selling them other events organised by their company. On a bar crawl, tourists are expected to play games and abide by certain rules. The rules may say that everyone must use the toilet of the opposite sex and that drinks must be held in a certain hand. The punishment for transgression is usually to finish one's drink in one go and to buy another straight away. The rules change as the evening progresses. As more people become increasingly inebriated and forget or break the rules, they are more likely to be punished, and so it goes on.

People have, of course, exercised a choice in joining the bar crawls. They do so because they want a party atmosphere, they want to be shown the best places to go for a good time by people they believe to be in the know, and they want to be part of a group for the social advantages that brings. It is also true that drinking to excess and the drunken behaviour that follows exist outside events organised by tour operators, and that such events may be only one aspect of the holiday for some tourists. But activities such as the bar crawl raise questions about the role tour operators play in, at the very least, encouraging such behaviour principally in the pursuit of profit.

Such events also tell us something about the controlled nature of an activity that is supposed to be synonymous with freedom and leisure. First, most tourists arrive in Magaluf as part of a holiday packaged by a British tour operator. They are supposed to be going abroad, yet they find themselves in a resort that is dominated by signs of "Britishness". Many tourists, of course, are attracted to Magaluf precisely because of its British flavour and its predictability. Tour operators acknowledge this by painting the world outside the resort as different and potentially threatening - the local buses are said to be full of pickpockets, a water-park is allegedly full of Germans, and a trip to a weekly market in the centre of the island is presented as virtually impossible outside of the tour operator-led excursion. The guarding of customers in this manner adds to the feeling of enclosure about Magaluf. The physical nature of the resort is such that it serves metaphorically and literally to keep the tourists within certain boundaries.

Many people look forward to holidays in the expectation of escape or freedom. The promise of Magaluf, with its predictable sense of Britishness and its reputation as "Shagaluf", is one of unfettered consumption and freedom from responsibility. The reality is that visitors to Magaluf are subjected to many attempts to mediate their experiences and to control the direction of their consumption - and therefore their constructions of identity. These result in a conformist, rule-set understanding of life, all in the guise of good fun. Not only are the tourists being sold and encouraged into a particular type of consumption practice; but this is being done with notions of an exclusive type of "Britishness" at its heart.

Hazel Andrews is a research student in the anthropology of tourism at the University of North London.

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