Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf

Baffled by the annual pilgrimage to the notorious Mallorcan resort, an anthropologist set out for the island to study British holidaymakers

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The Independent Online

During the summer of 2014 a young woman was recorded engaging in oral sex with 24 men in a nightclub in Magaluf in return for free drinks. 

As the YouTube clip went viral, a form of moral panic ensued with high-profile media stories decrying the behaviour of some British youth abroad, while other commentators sought to analyse the incident in more depth. When I first came across the stories I was bemused. Having spent several months studying tourists in Magaluf for my PhD in the late 1990s, and again in 2009, I witnessed and heard about similar behaviour (sexual position games, women being cajoled to “get their tits out for the boys”, strip shows, drinking games and games that would give rise to a punishment of more drinking if one didn’t obey the rules) over and over again, so I couldn’t quite understand why the event of last summer was news, or rather, why it was such sensational news.

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Memories of holidays to Magaluf often last a lifetime (Getty)

What the incident did confirm to me was that the adage “what happens on holiday stays on holiday” is even more fanciful than it ever was. Although people often claim that what they do on holiday “doesn’t matter, because no one knows me”, even before the advancement of social media networks, my time in Mallorca showed me that people rarely travelled alone and so their behaviour was witnessed by friends and family who clearly did know them. Now, with the ubiquity of social media, bringing the holiday home is perhaps more pronounced than ever.

The idea of spending several months in a warm and sunny climate next to a sandy beach in the name of research certainly has its appeal, and of course there are many worse hardships in life than sunbathing, visiting tourist attractions, being entertained, and having a drink; but this does all depend on context.

Prior to my time in Magaluf my own travel exploits were about discovery in the lands of far away. None of that experience prepared me for the world of Magaluf, and the loneliness of anthropological fieldwork. In the resort I saw myself as engaged on a serious academic endeavour, with the idea that I would simply interrupt the tourists in their holiday-making and interview them for hours on end.

Of course, people by-and-large were not interested in me, or my research, but were rather more concerned that I was trying to sell them time share; a suspicion shared on one occasion by the local police, who interrupted my attempts to interview a group of young lads with the words “what do you think you’re doing?”, completely ignoring the fact that I had become completely surrounded by the group and that one of the party was quite happily bouncing a football on top of my head.

Finding the research harder to conduct than I had anticipated I felt a crushing loneliness – compounded by the fact that the majority of people I met were not travelling alone – in which I became the object of enquiry to myself. Why didn’t I conform to the dress code, the enjoyment of racist and sexist jokes, the apparent need to go out every night and get drunk, and the enjoyment of seeing women, and particularly their bodies and bodily functions, exposed, mocked, or subjected to similar forms of exploitation as that described in the 2014 “mamading” (sex-for-drinks) incident?

We should also not think that excess is the preserve of the young. Indeed, some of the most extreme use of expletives I witnessed came from a clearly inebriated elderly couple who verbally repelled advances of help from passers-by when one of them took a tumble in the street. This was not a place in which I felt at ease, and nor did all of the tourists, many of whom viewed with some distaste the world of allegedly easy sex and pools of vomit that resulted from many of the activities organised by the numerous mediators of the tourists’ experiences, or some of the tourists themselves.

With scrutiny, much of what happens can give cause for concern as many activities are based on a cynical manipulation, by those in pursuit of profit, of ideas of fun and freedom which for many are concomitant with being on holiday.

Some tourists expressed empathy with my situation, they would themselves dislike having to stay in the resort for an extended period of time given the heat, the noise, and some of the behaviour exhibited there. But these encounters, like their holidays, were short-lived. My solitariness frequently turned me into an object of curiosity for tourists and my more permanent informants.

The latter – members of the expatriate community, and seasonal workers – who were probably more used to the environment than me, particularly given that they were also often the architects of that environment, acknowledged that dealing with the tourists was not without its challenges, especially given the reputation of Magaluf as “Shagaluf”. 

I received warnings about the dangers of going by myself late at night into Magaluf because of reports of rapes; assurances that I would be looked after should any football-related violence erupt in a bar I was in, and, during a period of ill health, care and concern in the form of hot whiskey, lemon and honey drinks after being subjected to an exorcism to cure me by my devoutly Christian landlady.

Several years on from my initial stay in the resort, last year’s mamading incident tells me that little has changed. We might also note that such activities are not exclusive to Magaluf. In other years focus has fallen on Faliraki, for example – anywhere that the young British go to party in the sun. In reaction to the mamading incident there are reports that the local tourism authorities would like to reposition Magaluf in the market to attract a higher class of clientele – an idea I encountered also in 1997. 

It is well known that tourist destinations fall in and out of fashion, but the idea of Magaluf as “Shagaluf” and all that goes with that does not appear to be abating.

Dr Hazel Andrews is a  faculty member at the Department of School  Education, Sport and Leisure at Liverpool  John Moores University

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