Spain’s tourism boom and the social mobility of migrant workers

By José Antonio García Barrero (University of Barcelona)

This blog is part of a series of New Researcher blogs.

Spain Balearic Islands Mediterranean Menorca. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

My research, which is based on a new database of the labour force in Spain’s tourism industry, analyses the assimilation of internal migrants in the Balearic Islands during the tourism boom between 1959 and 1973.

I show that tourism represented a context for upward social mobility for natives and migrants. But the extent of upward mobility was uneven among the different groups. While natives, foreigners and internal urban migrants achieved a significant level of upward mobility, the majority faced more difficulties to improve. The transferability of human capital to the services economy and the characteristics of their migratory fluxes determined the extent of the labour attainment of the migrants.

The tourism boom constituted one of the main scenarios of the path to modernisation in Spain in the twentieth century. Between 1959 and 1973, the country transformed into one of the top tourist economies of the world, mobilising a rapid and intense demographic and landscape transformation among coastal regions of the peninsula and the archipelagos.

The increasing demand for tourism services from West European societies triggered the massive arrival of tourists to the country. In 1959, four million tourists visited Spain; by 1973, the country hosted 31 million visitors. The epicentre of this phenomenon was the Balearic Islands.

In the Balearics, a profound transformation took place. In more than a decade, the capacity of the tourism industry skyrocketed from 215 to 1,534 hotels and pensions, and from 11,496 to 216,113 hotel beds. Between 1950 and 1981, the number of Spanish-born people from outside the Balearics increased from 33,000 inhabitants to 150,000, attracted by the high labour demand for tourism services. In 1950, they accounted for 9% of the total population; in 1981, that share had reached 34.4%.

In my research, I analyse whether the internal migrants who arrived at the archipelago – mostly seasonal migrants who ended up becoming permanent residents from stagnant rural agrarian areas in southern Spain – were able to take advantage of the rapid and profound transformation of the tourism industry. Instead of putting my focus on the process of movement from agrarian to services activities, my interest was in the potential possibilities of upward mobility in the host society.

I use a new database of the workforce, both men and women, in the tourism industry, comprising a total of 10,520 observations with a wide range of personal, professional and business data for each individual up to 1970. The features of this data make it possible to analyse the careers of these workers in the emerging service industry by cohort characteristics, including variables such as gender, place of birth, language skills or firm, among others. Using these variables, I examine the likelihood of belonging to four income categories.

My results suggest that the tourism explosion opened significant opportunities for upward labour mobility. Achieving high-income jobs was possible for workers involved in hospitality and tourism-related activities. But those who took advantage of this scenario were mainly male natives and urban migrants coming from northern Spain, mainly from Catalonia, and especially from European countries with clear advantages in terms of language skills.

For natives, human and social capital made the difference. For migrants, the importance of self-selection and the transferability of skills from urban cities to the new leisure economies were decisive.

Likewise, despite lagging behind, those from rural areas in southern Spain were able to achieve some degree of upward mobility, thus reducing progressively although not completely the gap with natives. Acquiring human capital through learning-by-doing and the formation of networks of support and information among migrants from the same areas increased the chances of improvement. Years of experience, knowing where to find job opportunities and holding personal contacts in the firms were important skills.

In that sense, the way that the migrants arrived at the archipelago mattered. Those more exposed to seasonal flows of migrants faced a lower capacity for upward mobility since they were recruited in their place of origin rather than through migrant networks or returned to their homes at the end of each season.

In comparison, those who relied on migratory networks and remained as residents in the archipelago had a greater chance of getting better jobs and reducing their socio-economic distance from the natives.

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