Ibiza: Is the party over?

More than half a million Brits travel to the Balearic island each year in search of round-the-clock parties. But now the head of tourism is calling for a dramatic image change, with curbs on the superstar-DJ club nights and high-rise hotels in an attempt to attract more upmarket visitors. Elizabeth Nash reports

The Balearic island of Ibiza, long a hedonistic paradise for British clubbers drawn by world-class DJs and a reputation for plentiful drugs, is cleaning up its act.

Locals on the world's best-known party island have had enough of drug busts and violence among ecstasy-fuelled youngsters partying almost round the clock in vast music hangars. As summer approaches, Ibiza seeks to cast off its reputation for excess and appeal to a more prosperous, better-behaved kind of visitor.

"The clubbing scene forms only a tiny part of what the island offers, but it's what defines us internationally, and it's damaged our image. We intend to change all that," says Josefa Mari, head of Ibiza's tourism and economic department.

Last year the authorities, exasperated by the activities of drug dealers inside big clubs, closed three top venues, Amnesia, Bora Bora and DC-10, for more than a month. Clubs will still flourish, but must now limit their opening times to curb "after-hours" daytime partying.

And away from the pounding music in San Antonio and San Josep, smart new hotels at the opposite end of the island offer a smoother brand of hedonism: that of health spas and all the trappings that prosperous Europeans now expect.

"The days when we could compete with low-cost destinations are long past. We are aware we must improve the quality of our tourism, by renovating hotels, building better ones, promoting rural guest houses and cleaning up environmental damage caused by unregulated construction. We plan to reform our coastline and our nautical activities, to protect our maritime environment," Ms Mari says.

Tacky three-star hotels built 20 or 30 years ago for the mass market are being torn down, or upgraded with more luxurious and environmentally friendly operations. The plan is to encourage "responsible tourism". Three years ago the island boasted just one five-star hotel; this summer there will be six.

The more high-end approach is driven partly by hard necessity. Ibiza can no longer compete on price with low-cost destinations in Turkey, Greece and the Balkans. Further, Ibizan authorities are aware that the visitors they now favour – the likes of Penelope Cruz and Zinedine Zidane, looking for a sun-drenched luxury lifestyle, or families who want a safe, tranquil beach holiday – are critical of concrete monstrosities that have ravaged the island's beauty.

The change of heart has a political origin. The Balearics used to be fiefdom of Spain's conservative Popular Party who allowed big hotel chains and tourism developers a free rein. But a backlash among locals who felt their lives crushed by big business swept the Socialists to power: first, in the Balearics regional government; then, last May, a socialist alliance gained its first-ever victory in Ibiza. Ruling politicians in Madrid, the Balearics and Ibiza are all left wing, for the first time in Spanish history. "The tide has turned," says Ms Mari of the island's Socialist-led Pact for Change. "People rebelled against uncontrolled development that was destroying our island, and voted for a more responsible approach."

The revolt was spectacularly personified by Pere Torres, 55, a bank manager in Ibiza who entered politics in 2006 to lead a campaign against a gigantic six-lane motorway from the island's airport to the party capital San Antonio, a hop of just 25km. Mr Torres was elected a left-wing independent senator in Madrid's upper house of parliament in general elections last month. He captured the seat occupied for years by the former conservative foreign minister Abel Matutes, head of a powerful family-run tourism empire that has long dominated the Balearics.

Hundreds of houses were expropriated to build a gash of concrete across a spit of land. Tens of thousands sat down in front of the bulldozers in an unprecedented protest. The Ibiza motorway was a grotesque example of the cement plague that has blighted Spain's Mediterranean resorts in recent years. "My family house no longer exists. It's buried under asphalt," Mr Torres said of his electoral victory on 9 March. "People have lost their fear of the big companies that controlled our lives for so long." The motorway remains, but it crushed the politicians who built it. True to its relaxed reputation, Ibiza has opted for a more people-friendly development model.

Bohemian hippies first flocked to laid-back Ibiza in the 1960s, some fleeing call-up for the Vietnam War, some seeking peace, love and groovy music in the sun. Their easy-going style set the pattern for sleeping on the beach or dossing in cheap flophouses, in the days when Spain was barely developed.

Livelier British clubbers started to arrive in the late 1980s when two English DJs, Trevor Fung and Ian St Paul, opened the Project bar in San Antonio. DJs such as Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling were soon visiting. The number of clubs exploded with the expansion of Britain's illegal rave and ecstasy culture and venues such as Café del Mar, Eden and Es Paradís quickly won a big following, attracted by the warm weather which allowed clubbers to sleep off their come-down on the beach. Today the island remains at the vanguard of chill-out, with 500,000 Brits among the thousands of "trance tourists" visiting.

"Our disco culture continues to thrive. Clubs like Amnesia, Space and Pacha have been judged the best in the world," Ms Mari says. "But we must prevent harmful fallout from the nocturnal sector that disturbs the enjoyment of others."

Clubs must now close between 6am and 4pm. "We don't mind people dancing all night. But a person who stays in a club from when they arrive on Friday night until they leave on Monday can only keep going by taking drugs," Ms Mari says.

Joan Cerda is the Ibiza-based communications chief of the Balearia ferry company that operates between the islands and mainland Spain. He says: "A more upmarket tourism won't expel the clubbing culture. That's not the intention. Ibiza has always welcomed a mixture of cultures. Today's clubbers, like yesterday's hippies, are a minority that can coexist with everyone else."

The main problem is that the island's tourist season lasts just six months. Clubs open only for the three months in the summer. The challenge is to prolong the season by promoting short breaks all year round. "More Europeans visit Prague for the weekend than Ibiza, which is much nearer. Twenty years ago, people came here for two weeks. Now almost nobody stays two weeks. They escape for a few days several times a year," Mr Cerda says.

New luxury spa resorts in Santa Eulalia that offer mud packs, massage and the like hope to attract not just stressed professionals but out-of-season conference tourism: seminars on climate change are already scheduled. And small, high-end hotels in the island's rugged interior are spearheading a drive towards rural tourism, offering family retreats less dependent on frenzied nights.

The perfect clientele? Clubbers who visited the island in the first wave of rave tourism. These now affluent fortysomethings are starting to return with their children, preferring to stay in luxury and leave their children with the nanny while they dip back into the party atmosphere.

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