Exposing the dangers of excess in party resorts

party towns 2
Is the party over?

Recent headlines have highlighted counts of sexual aggression, crime and social misconduct in popular tourist resorts, but a new decree restricting the promotion and sale of alcohol in Eastern Spain shines a light on what appears to be a common factor in many of these incidents – excessive alcohol consumption and the resultant risks associated with it. Robyn Bainbridge reports

In a press release published towards the end of January, the government of the Balearic Islands (Govern Illes Balears, hereafter referred to as GIB) stated: “The Balearic Islands government has approved a Decree Law to combat alcohol excess in certain tourist areas, with the aim of forcing real change in the tourism model of these destinations; promoting responsible conduct, adopting measures to protect the destination and avoiding issues derived from excessive alcohol consumption in certain places of the Balearic Islands.” The new decree targets specific areas of the region – Playa de Palma, El Arenal, Magaluf and the West End of Sant Antoni de Portmany – and will be valid for a period of five years. This is considered to be a milestone development, as it is the first such standard adopted throughout Europe, and GIB noted as much.

“In recent times,” the press release continued, “efforts to positively promote the destination, create a better quality experience – via both public and private investments – and position the destination in an increasingly competitive and global market have been negatively impacted due to issues of unsociable behaviour often related to alcohol abuse in certain tourist areas of Mallorca and Ibiza.”

Poor judgement

So, let’s get right to the heart of the it: what are ‘the issues derived from excessive alcohol consumption’ that GIB refers to? Commenting on traveller risks within certain tourist hotspots the world over, James Page, Chief Administration Officer and Head of Assistance and Claims at AIG Travel in the US, said: “The risks of travelling to party-centric destinations are closely aligned with risks associated with alcohol. Excessive alcohol use results in poor decision making, which can lead to medical issues.”

Speaking to ITIJ, Camila Crenes, Network Manager at Semesur Assistence – a medical assistance provider operating in Spain – reported that the travellers it assists in these popular resorts are often suffering from either symptoms related to dehydration and gastroenteritis; heat stroke combined with other significant dehydration symptoms; or falls resulting from a state of alcohol intoxication or minor violence-related injuries such as bruises, abrasions or sprains. It added that Semesur mostly performs what it calls ‘hangover pathologies’ – treating symptoms that are the result of the previous night or that the patient only becomes aware of once the alcohol has begun to leave their system.

Party towns 3

Elsewhere, the ‘issues of unsociable behaviour often related to alcohol abuse’ that GIB’s press release mentions are expanded upon as including ‘dangerous health practices such as jumping from balconies’ – a fad among young reckless tourists that causes much exasperation among insurers, assistance providers and tourism businesses alike; and a topic often traversed within the pages of ITIJ.

Daniel Scognamiglio, Travel Insurance Lawyer for UK-based insurance law firm Blake Morgan, told ITIJ that balconing is now a criminal activity throughout the Balearics. He added: “All too often, we have had to deal with the dreadful consequences of alcohol and balconing. Each year, we see a lot of claims from these resorts that involve significant and fatal injuries. A lot of the claims have involved alcohol or balconing and are denied by insurers on that basis, leaving the injured or their families to find the funds to deal with the consequences.”
And whether or not the press release also means to refer to some of the more shocking allegations of sexual violence that have been reported is difficult to discern, but the associated implication hangs in the air nonetheless. Crenes certainly identifies that incidents of sexual aggression – as well as dangerous practices such as balconing – are mainly focused in the Balearic Islands and the south of the Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife Islands. 

On 3 February 2020, the US Embassy & Consulate General (USECG) issued a security alert to US citizens over an increase in sexual assaults against young US visitors and students throughout Spain(1). And in the same security alert, USECG advises travellers visiting Spain to ‘drink responsibly – do not consume beverages that are out of your control’.

The overarching suggestion here is that excessive alcohol consumption is one of the pivotal factors within tourism-related problems inherent within these destinations.

In terms of risks to travellers, crime rates in the Balearic Islands remain the highest in Spain, with robbery and more serious crimes like sexual assault being major concerns in Ibiza and Magaluf

Addressing the stereotype

“Surprisingly, the tourists in this context are not always as young as could be expected,” said Crenes. Page echoed this point, noting that AIG doesn’t necessarily see any notable trends with young people travelling to these ‘party-centric’ destinations. In fact, it is hard to get hold of comprehensive data that supports the belief that young people are the main perpetrators (and victims of) alcohol-related accidents and crimes – as Page is quick to point out, however, young people tend to not buy travel insurance as frequently as older travellers. “We see more assistance and claims cases with older (30-year-old plus) travellers in these locations,” he said.
Then again, as Manny Soar, Insurance Consultant for the International Association for Student Insurance Services (IASIS), infers, attitudes towards alcohol consumption might have less to do with age than certain cultural backgrounds – the Brits and the Irish, he says, have one of the worst reputations when it comes to being boozy and behaving badly abroad.  

Party towns 4

Data gathered by Statistica reveals that in 2017, residents of the UK were the second-largest group travelling to Mallorca on holiday (over 2.3 million visits that year); the first being the German population(2). In addition, a report conducted by Interreg Europe last updated in 2017, stated that the visitor profile of the Balearic Islands corresponds to a person aged between 25 and 64 years old, who bought a package holiday in Germany or Great Britain(3).

But preconceived prejudices can skew an accurate understanding of the situation. “There is a significant lack of sympathy towards holidaymakers where alcohol is involved,” Scognamiglio noted. “It is difficult to overcome the view that any incident involving a Brit was caused by the overconsumption of alcohol.”

When it comes to claims related to sexual violence and the like, insurance cover (if it is specified within the policy) will be provided for any (non-emergency) medical treatment received abroad as long as the crime is recorded by the police

A vicious circle

Is it, however, fair to argue that booze-fueled Brits are tearing up destinations and leaving a mess of bad reputations and negative headlines in their wake? Or could there be more than one contributor to the problem? Could it not also be reasoned that the wider travel industry is actively endorsing debaucherous behaviour by failing to challenge it at the offset? Surely for local businesses and tourism boards to complain of this inappropriate, alcohol-fuelled behaviour, all the while for many years having made a profit off its back, is hypocritical at best. 

This is something that the new decree also acknowledges – in the press release, GIB discourages the advertisement and promotion of alcoholic activities such as ‘organised pub crawls’; restricts the sale of for off-licenses and vending machines; and bans party boats in these areas(4). 

Still, Scognamiglio wonders whether a ban on organised pub crawls is an effective measure: “There is no mention of disorganised pub crawls (by that I mean a spontaneous moving from one bar to the next) also being banned,” he said. And, as far as the off license and vending machine restrictions, Scognamiglio warns that holidaymakers will simply stock up earlier in the day rather than rely on alcohol being freely available all night long. He added: “Bars must now charge for drinks – so whilst there are no free drinks, it looks like there will still be plenty of cheap alcohol.”

A more sinister side

Page notes that, in terms of risks to travellers, crime rates in the Balearic Islands remain the highest in Spain, with robbery and more serious crimes like sexual assault being major concerns in Ibiza and Magaluf. “Along with potential medical issues associated with alcohol consumption and associated risky behaviour, risks of opportunistic crime such as robbery and pickpocketing (and more serious crimes such as sexual assault) may be higher due to the disorientating effects of alcohol. That said, tourists in general are more frequently targeted by opportunistic criminals, and given rising crime rates in the Balearic Islands, risks to travellers there – even outside of the influence of alcohol – will likely persist.”

What’s more, on its website, the USECG asserts that US citizens who become victims of sexual assault can find it very difficult to navigate the local criminal justice system (it differing significantly from that of the US). And with countless media reports on the Ayia Napa rape allegation of last year suggesting that local police actively dissuade victims from reporting crimes of sexual aggression – or else don’t take them seriously – this can further encumber the industry’s response.

party towns 5

Soar points out that when it comes to claims related to sexual violence and the like, insurance cover (if it is specified within the policy) will be provided for any (non-emergency) medical treatment received abroad as long as the crime is recorded by the police.

However, as studies have also highlighted that only a small percentage of victims of sexual violence disclose their experiences to another party, with an even smaller percentage taking measures to inform the police(5),   this becomes a contentious issue for insurers.

Semesur’s Crenes also affirms this insight, noting that there have been cases where her company assisted a patient who did not mention having experienced sexual aggression, but the assisting doctor was able to identify the symptoms of violence and orchestrate the necessary police and medical assistance services.
And, as for the role that alcohol plays in these incidents, there is still unwavering confidence amongst those in the travel and health industry that it plays a part in increasing vulnerability amongst certain groups of travellers. Indeed, both the Cambridge Handbook of International Prevention Science and the World Health Organization have previously expressed that, given the role that alcohol frequently plays in increasing vulnerability to sexual violence(6),(7), young males and females who visit popular nightlife-centred tourist resorts should be considered to be at risk.

There is a significant lack of sympathy towards holidaymakers where alcohol is involved. It is difficult to overcome the view that any incident involving a Brit was caused by the overconsumption of alcohol

And looking more broadly at sexual assault claims that were reported within party-centric environments (whether abroad or on campus), a separate study conducted by US organisation United Educators (UE) – which studied sexual assault claims filed between 2011 and 2013 by the institutions it insures – uncovered that 41 per cent of the 305 sexual assault claims studied occurred at off-campus parties; that 94 per cent of victims were female; that one in three victims were drunk, passed out or asleep; and that 78 per cent of assaults involved alcohol(8).

Meanwhile, AIG Travel’s Student Travel Safety resource, which is available on the company website, has a section titled ‘Drink responsibly’, in which it advises young travellers not to go out drinking alone at night, to have a ‘designated sober individual’ in the group, avoid leaving drinks or food unattended, and not to accept any food or drinks from strangers. That such advice should need to be imparted implies that the problem persists.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that cases of alcohol abuse can be held solely responsible for such acts of sexual aggression – perhaps, rather, it is the toxic environment that consuming alcohol incites. And, certainly, individual, cultural and societal factors come into play here too. Ultimately, sexual violence is a problem that needs to be addressed on a much larger scale by a great many more parties than just the travel industry.

party towns 6

The big question: what can be done?

So, where does all of this leave us? Sure, excessive alcohol consumption has proved to be a big contributing factor in many of the issues faced throughout the Balearic Islands, but it’s also arguably innate in Western culture. As Page highlights, not all traveller risks in areas like the Balearic Islands are linked to alcohol consumption. And, as demonstrated by UEs’ studies, cases of sexual assault are not exclusive of the Balearics. 
The question is, are foreign nationals more vulnerable while travelling abroad? And the resounding answer is yes. The question that follows then is, are insureds offered sufficient protection through their travel insurance? And the answer is not quite so straightforward.

Scognamiglio notes that most travel policies have general exclusions relevant to the excessive consumption of alcohol and wilful exposure to harm – rightly so. Indeed, he notes that some even have balconing exclusions now.

Pre-decree, Scognamiglio highlighted: “Obtaining evidence can be very difficult for an insurer and it is well known that hospitals often omit any record of alcohol or balcony in their notes for fear of not being paid by an insurer.”

All too often, we have had to deal with the dreadful consequences of alcohol and balconing

But even with the introduction of the new decree, concerns have surfaced. For some context, GIB highlighted that, within the new decree, in all-inclusive properties within the sanctioned areas of the Balearic Islands, alcoholic drinks will be limited to six per day (‘three during the lunch timetable and three during the evening timetable’). It’s worth noting that GIB also details that this limit will only apply to all-inclusive packages booked after the legislation comes into effect, not for those that have already been booked.

Speaking to ITIJ, the Association of British Travel Insurers (ABTA), said: “The Balearic Islands and the destinations of Magaluf and San Antonio are very popular with British holidaymakers. While we strongly support initiatives that improve the health and safety of holidaymakers, as well as the welfare of local communities, such as encouraging bar owners to take a more responsible approach to the sale of alcohol and campaigning for balcony safety among young holidaymakers, we believe some of the measures announced in relation to addressing unsociable behaviour, for example targeting all-inclusive holidays, are misdirected. The vast majority of holidaymakers on all-inclusives are couples and families, so it is difficult to see how imposing strict rules on this type of arrangement will fix the problem of anti-social behaviour in resorts. We would encourage the Balearic authorities to reconsider this.”

party towns 7

The ripple effect

But for now, Scognamiglio reasons, acquiring case evidence will hopefully be easier, and there is also likely to be some investigation into criminal activity now that breaching the laws will be seen as a criminal act. 
That being said, Page argues that the outcome is difficult to predict at this point, as the support of the tourism industry and a commitment by local law enforcement will be vitally important in order to affect any kind of significant change. “Without a clear view of the contributions these two entities will ultimately make, it is uncertain how effective the laws will be and, accordingly, how they might affect traveller health and safety or the travel insurance industry itself,” he said.

The outcomes certainly are difficult to discern at this point. And Soar highlights that as far as UK travellers go, the real test will be post-Brexit. Scognamiglio elaborates on this point: “Whilst these areas can be high risk for the young, and we see far too many calamities befalling policyholders due to alcohol, there is no exclusion on holidaymakers going to these areas within travel insurance policies. Preventing someone from travelling within the EU would probably be in breach of various EU rules.” He notes that it will be interesting to see if there is a change from 1 January 2021, when the UK is due to leave.  

But, for now, Soar also reasons that negative headlines will unlikely have any drastic effect on tourist numbers to these locations; he insists that low cost and the good weather are the prime factors in this.
As for the locals, Crenes assures ITIJ that ‘drunk tourism’, as it is locally known, does have negative effects. And, in line with the new regulations, she asserts that other strategies will likely need to be developed in order to effect conscious tourism. “These touristic areas now face the challenge to clean their image and reinvent themselves for a more conscious tourism. Tour operators have to take responsibility in their role and widen the tourism offering, including nature tourism and adventure and experience tourism,” she told ITIJ. “Spain is full of possibilities and new tourism possibilities are emerging and becoming stronger, to show our most exciting experiences and enjoyable breakaways, without the need of excess.” 

New restrictions on alcohol consumption will likely only drive the associated problems elsewhere

Soar, Scognamiglio and Crenes all muse on whether these new restrictions on alcohol consumption will simply drive the associated problems elsewhere; as Scognamiglio puts it: “In the event that the culture in these areas changes, young holidaymakers have a habit of finding somewhere else to go to.” 

For now, it will be interesting to see the effects that the alcohol restriction has on tourism within the Balearics, but it’s also worth highlighting that the problems identified in this region are currently present in many other popular tourist destinations the world over, with perpetrators being of various nationalities.

It would be overly optimistic to hope that the new decree will fix the global problem of excessive alcohol consumption, and the issues caused by it. To do so, it’s integral that we challenge the role that alcohol plays in the pursuit of recreation and leisure – treating the cause, not the symptom, is the best way to ensure a healthier, happier tourism industry. ■