Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series about the ways budget airlines and changing tourism trends are affecting communities in Britain and abroad.
MAGALUF, Spain — There’s drunk, there’s very drunk, and then there’s British-tourist-in-Magaluf drunk.
With its scorching sunshine and alcohol shots cheaper than bus tickets, this beach town on the Spanish island of Mallorca lures budget partiers from Ireland to Russia.
But no nation deploys armies of visitors to Magaluf as large or committed to debauchery as the UK.
The town feels like a sun-baked colony settled by Blighty’s most intoxicated. British waitresses serve British tourists in bars with names like the Prince William Pub and Eastenders Bar. Beachfront restaurants advertise PG Tips tea with “English milk” and hangover-soothing fried English breakfasts.
Club fliers promote parties with appearances by C-list celebrities (White Dee of the reality show “Benefit Street,” “The Only Way Is Essex” cast, a bevy of topless tabloid Page-3 girls) whose name recognition largely ends at the British coastline.
More in the series: Sex, booze and wizards: 12 hours in Magaluf
The local authorities have long overlooked tourist excesses for the sake of boosting the number of visitors.
But one recent wild night on the main drag of Punta Ballena has prompted international headlines, official condemnation and questions about what it means when tourism gets out of control.
Last month, a video hit the internet of a pub-crawling British teenager performing oral sex on 24 men in a Magaluf bar in exchange for a free drink.
In the two and a half minute cell phone video, a giggling young blond woman races around a crowded club, briefly sucking what the Times newspaper columnist Caitlin Moran described as two dozen “non-erect, rather alarmed-looking penises.”
Some reports claim the 18-year-old was told she would win a “holiday,” only to be handed a cocktail of the same name; others that she received a whole bottle of alcohol for her efforts. (The distinction may be relevant only if you believe there’s such thing as a fair blow job/booze exchange rate.)
Pub-crawl organizer Carnage Magaluf, whose employee took the video, fanned the outrage by refusing to apologize.
“All you need to do is look at the video and you can see she clearly isn't drunk and knows what she is doin [sic],” the British-owned company tweeted. “We are not responsible for the girls actions. The girl and her 8 friends bought tickets for the next BARCRAWL as they said it was AMAZING!”
“Magaluf Girl,” as she became known, made headlines from New York to Australia, with most stories casting the party town as a dangerously hedonistic playground.
The region’s mayor issued a statement expressing “total rejection and anger” at the video’s antics. Carnage Magaluf and the bar in which the clip was filmed were ordered to close for 12 months and jointly fined $74,000.
Spain’s tourism minister followed by announcing a $1-million PR campaign in Spain and the UK to clean up Magaluf’s image.
“Our commitment to promote our beautiful region to the UK remains as strong as ever,” said Calvia Mayor Manuel Onieva. “It is such a shame that an irresponsible act by one rogue operator is threatening to undo our hard work.”
Pinning Magaluf’s troubles on a single operator may be a bit misleading, however.
Such tourist destinations are complicated ecosystems, travel experts say. As places served by low-cost travel providers explode in popularity, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to manage their image.
“Magaluf is the extreme of tourism,” says Jeremy Smith, a London-based writer and consultant on responsible tourism. “Your average destination is not as bad as that.”
“But if everything happens on a continuum, sometimes it’s helpful to look at the extremes to see where things end up. This is what happens when you let it go amok.”
Magaluf was a popular destination for British tourists even before the dawn of low-cost, no-frills air travel. Package-tour companies ferried visitors from the UK to Mallorca’s beaches on chartered airplanes starting in the 1970s and 1980s.
But it was the rise of low-cost carriers such as RyanAir and EasyJet in the late 1990s that really changed the game, putting international travel squarely within the reach of middle- and working-class people.
Palma de Mallorca Airport now receives flights from England’s East Midlands, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle, alongside planes from Tel Aviv and Madrid.
Magaluf draws young tourists from across Europe looking for a good time on a budget.
But there’s one matter the town’s resident population agrees on, from the tattoo artists to hotel concierges and the sunglass hawkers on the beach: The British are the loudest, drunkest and craziest visitors by far.
The German newspaper Bild recently published a cartoon of stereotypical UK tourists in Mallorca: a sunburned, tattooed, proudly drunken pair suffering from what the paper called “Prince Harry syndrome” (the sudden desire to strip nude when intoxicated).
In July, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office released its annual report on British behavior abroad.
Although it isn’t the most-visited country by Brits — France claims that title — Spain topped the list for the greatest number of British tourist deaths, hospitalizations, arrests, drug arrests, rapes and every other problem the consulate deals with.
But going wild on vacation is hardly a 21st-century phenomenon.
Nineteenth-century Britons went to the English seaside resort of Brighton for fun that couldn’t be had in Victorian London, or to Paris for the really taboo stuff, says John Swarbrooke, a professor of tourism at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Social media, however, has broken the centuries-old convention that what happens abroad stays abroad. Now proof of holiday indiscretions can be blasted around the world in seconds, carrying possibly major consequences for the people and places involved.
Magaluf Girl’s identity leaked within days. An online flogging followed. A friend of her deeply religious Northern Ireland family told reporters her parents had forgiven her for having “dropped her Godly protection for a moment.”
The two dozen men who stood around with their genitals out of their pants in exchange for three seconds with a stranger’s mouth have remained anonymous, however.
Ten years ago, Magaluf Girl might have remained no more than an apocryphal legend among seasonal workers, totally under the radars of families searching the web for vacation spots.
Today, she’s Google’s first hit for “Magaluf.” That makes marketing beyond the party crowd a little tricky.
Of course Magaluf is hardly the only place in the world where tourists have gone wild.
Goa in India, Vang Vieng in Laos and any number of Thailand’s beaches have also grappled with tension between those who think tourist misbehavior should be stopped and those making good money from it.
“It’s been hard for destinations to manage their own destinies, to an extent,” Swarbrooke says. “If you say ‘now Magaluf is going to become a family destination,’ it would be 10 years before anyone would believe you. And in those 10 years, you’d have empty hotels, empty restaurants.”
That’s why scandals like Magaluf Girl tend to generate a lot of official finger-wagging but very little change.
More in the series: The British towns that Easyjet killed
“While everybody wrings their hands about how awful it is, a lot of people are making a lot of money,” Swarbrooke says.
On Magaluf’s neon-lit streets, the British kids who staff the bars and clubs say the recent scandal has been great for business.
“I’m loving all this press. I think it will bring more people,” says Ricky, 18, a wood machinist from Coventry who spends the summer nights in a blue vest trying to bring tourists into an England-themed bar.
Magaluf Girl isn't the wildest person to hit the strip anyway, the club touts say. She just happened to get caught on film.