COVID-19 may offer Ibiza a chance to reinvent its tourism industry

Published on Reset

Though Ibiza’s summer season looks bleak without foreign tourists, the pandemic could offer the famous party island a chance to reinvent itself.

The lights of San Antonio, the English quarter of Ibiza, are down. Its tiny streets, normally packed with British tourists partying at the many bars and nightclubs, are empty. This year, Europe’s most famous party island in the Balearic Islands of Spain is experiencing a summer season unlike any other.  

International travel has all but stopped since the world went into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. As restrictions loosen up, experts have announced that, at least in the short term, the tourism industry is going local. Governments, including those in Italy and the UK, have called on citizens to holiday at home to help domestic tourism recover and curb the spread of COVID-19.

But the move risks disrupting economies that rely on foreign tourism and threatens seasonal workers that depend on summer incomes. 

“I am a bit scared, everything is still very quiet,” says Diletta Carlini, who lives in Ibiza’s old town and works as a beautician. Since she moved there four years ago, summer has always been her busiest time. 

Over three million foreign visitors pump the island’s economy every summer, allowing most of its 150,000 inhabitants to work for only a few months of the year and live on savings until the following season. However, this year money is getting tight and residents may need to apply for unemployment benefits, explains Carlini. 

Before the pandemic, she was thinking of opening her own business, but now she might wait. “There will be no revenue this year, I’ll have to postpone,” Carlini says with a sigh. “If we continue at this rate though, we won’t make it to October. The island will die.”

The majority of Ibiza’s tourists are attracted to its renowned nightlife and dance music scene. Known for its “party tourism” culture, many visitors go there to drink, dance, and party. But with its biggest venues shut down, international music events suspended, and social distancing measures in place, the island faces hard times. 

A summer party at Ushuaïa, one of the most famous nightclubs on the island.

Ibiza’s €770m (£686m) summer music industry  represents over half of all seasonal jobs, and cancelling a summer schedule could consequently cost up to 4,000 positions. However, some of the most famous nightclubs, Hï Ibiza, Ushuaïa, Amnesia and Eden, have already suspended their events. 

Romeo Piatti, who is from Italy and owns the tour operator, Boat Party Ibiza, says everything is on pause now: “We have frozen all contracts until there are no specific protocols.” He adds, “If they allow us to work, we’ll do our best. But I also understand that people are afraid.”

Piatti believes the crowd-filled fun typical of the island will have to be reworked: “The future of clubs is small V.I.P. areas for 8-10 people max. It’s the end of large dance halls.” However, he feels confident he will be able to continue organising boat parties: “On boats, it’s easier to control the number of people and divide them into small groups,” he says before laughing and adding, “some people don’t even believe that the season is cancelled, we still get bookings.”

Italian bartender Luca Di Fazio, 26, who has been to Ibiza several times, as both a tourist and a seasonal bar worker also believes the season will pull through: “Every year they say the season will be worse, but in the end, it’s always great.” He continues, “I don’t think international artists will give up this summer either. Ibiza will always be the European summer party.” 

Indeed, local DJs are keeping the island’s dance vibe going with rooftop livestreams.  The world-famous club Pacha is hosting virtual house parties on its Facebook page. In response to the promise “#SeeYouSoon” on the club’s page, one virtual clubber commented: “We will be back dancing together.”

According to tourism professor Marco Garrido Cumbrera at the University of Sevilla, visitors could come back to the island if “facility sanitation measures with ozone generators for high-quality air, and the automation of tasks through mobile, such as check-in and automated payment” are established. 

Yet, the much-loved party culture which distinguishes Ibiza has also come under scrutiny and the pandemic could trigger lasting change on the island. Year after year the heavy tourism placed enormous pressure on the land, ecosystem, and population of Ibiza. 

A tourist to resident ratio of 25 to 1, the world’s second-highest, has caused spikes in rental prices, with households now spending about 82 per cent of their income on housing, according to Ibiza Preservation Fund

Atlantis bay, a secret cove in Ibiza. Image: Kate Benyon-Tinker.

The inundation of tourists has caused a growing need for infrastructure, increasing urbanisation by almost 61 per cent since 1990 and waste production on the island to 540kg per person every year. Mass tourism’s excesses can prove harmful to local residents’ daily lives, and earlier this year they led to ordinances  banning happy hours and pub crawls in popular party spots in the Balearic Islands. 

The pandemic’s repercussions for popular destinations around the world might put into perspective a concept of tourism that focuses on imported forms of entertainment rather than the celebration of local culture and scenic richness. 

“Indeed, the current crisis should serve Spain to attract more domestic tourists and promote more sustainable tourism, focused on rural destinations and, especially, inland municipalities with fewer inhabitants,” points out Professor Cumbrera. 

This summer offers Ibiza an opportunity to diversify its tourism and, perhaps, to make up its lost nightclub covers by attracting visitors keen to explore its natural beauty and local culinary riches. 

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