Ibiza: The party's over

The clubbers have moved on and the beer's going flat. The Spanish island that was a byword for sun, sea and shameless hedonism is feeling the chill wind of change. Stephen Khan reports

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:15

Rows of grubby pedallos lie untouched on the grey beach. Around them a few scarlet bodies cluster in small groups, puffing on cigarettes and reading the British red-top newspapers. Across a wide, open, promenade are the tables and chairs of dozens of restaurants and bars that once provided the launch pad for tourists' evenings of excess. They're empty.

A barman sighs. He never thought things could get this bad. For the first time, he's decided not to bother opening for the evening. Some of his neighbours won't be opening again.

If the weather wasn't so good and the architecture so bad you could be in a grotty seaside town back home. There is a uniquely depressing atmosphere about a coastal resort on the wane; a sense of childhood dreams that have faded without being fulfilled; a foreboding that worse is to come; a feeling that time has passed you by. And this place has it in bucket-and-spade loads.

Perhaps it is the vast canyons of grey concrete that once adorned the pages of glossy brochures at the start of the package holiday boom. Perhaps it is the glum looks on little faces as ice-cream melts down burnt arms on to new football strips. Or perhaps it's their parents, who sulk, bicker, then sulk again.

Whatever it is, this place just makes you want to sit down on an abandoned sun lounger (the days of tossing aside a German's towel to grab the last one have long gone) and weep. It really shouldn't be like this. For it is August, and, incredibly, this is Ibiza.

Tonight Radio 1's DJs will roll in and proclaim that it's showtime. Magazines and club nights elsewhere will join in as the White Isle celebrates a decade of dance. For 10 years, Ibiza has been the hedonistic hot spot. Countless documentaries may have highlighted the sex, booze and drugs, but a feelgood factor spread across the island and made a fortune for hoteliers, small businesses and promoters. It became the undisputed global summer party HQ.

Clubs such as Pacha, Amnesia and Space are now known throughout the world as brands as well as cathedrals of sound. And from the pulpits of these vast establishments, men and women who would once have been regarded as rather good at playing records have become international megastars. Yet behind this riot of colour and noise, a tourism crisis is taking root.

Resorts that once provided dance music's disciples with a place to stay for their two weeks of madness are now in a desperate state. Even in the peak summer months, hotels and bars in what was a cradle of the package holiday boom are empty. Rising prices and images of drunk, drugged, sex-crazed youths have taken their toll.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Figueretes, a suburb of Ibiza town. Just a few years ago its promenade would have been thronging with people at this time of year. Not now though. Alan Burdon, who has run Bar Kitsch for six years in the resort believes it has "never been so quiet". And Mr Burdon believes it is the clubs that are killing the goose that laid the golden egg. "There are a number of different factors. But the clubs have become too expensive," he says. "They are charging up to 50 euros to get in and then every drink costs 8 to 10 euros. The clubbers are just not coming in the same numbers, and those who do cannot afford to go to the clubs and the pubs."

British tourists formed the backbone of the Ibiza tourist boom, with first families flocking here in the 1970s and early 80s, followed by teenagers embarking on their first foreign foray. The British make up 40 per cent of the market, but this year they are staying away. There are 13 per cent fewer British visitors in Ibiza this year.

The other great supporters of the island, the Germans, have staged an even greater exodus. More than 400,000 this time last year, have become just 240,000 this year. To make matters worse, the other Balearic islands appear to be taking advantage, with Majorca in particular booming.

Tourism officials have recognised they have a major problem; the slump is projected to cost the island 20 million euros. Feeling the pinch more than most is the infamous resort of San Antonio, the town that provided the backdrop for Ibiza Uncovered, a television programme that many now believe trashed the island's image. This week, though, the hotels and bars in "San An" were far more worried about a lack of tourists than chavs behaving badly.

"I last came here five years ago, I can't believe the difference," says Mark, 23, from Kirkcaldy, taking time out from downing jugs of 'Jock Tails' at the Highlander Bar. "Given what we're paying it would have been much better going to one of the Greek islands where it's all a bit livelier. I'm not coming back." And he's not the only one.

At least two hotels are said to be planning to close and others are struggling to fill rooms. One manager tells me all is well, only for a receptionist to contradict him as soon as he disappears. "We've never seen it like this. I'm sure a few hotels will not be here next year."

Outside Bar M, Anna Dillon, a 25-year-old on holiday here from Coventry, tells me: "It's getting much quieter than it's been in previous years, every year you can tell there's fewer people. The clubs are still great, there's still a great party atmosphere but when I first came to San Antonio four years ago you could hardly walk from here to the bar across town because it was so busy, and now look at it."

In the nearby El Dia Café, Miguel Angel Barrera is also lamenting the lack of British tourists. "For the past five years things have steadily been getting worse," says Mr Barrera, who first came to Ibiza from Barcelona in 1966 to join a hippie commune. Indeed it is the hippies who preceded the tourist invasion who are credited with instilling a liberal, experimental approach to drugs that persists to this day. Some say it is drugs that have scared off the families.

Last winter the BBC ran a series called Drugland which focused on Ibiza's burgeoning scene. Gangland bosses from Manchester and Liverpool were said to be vying for control of the market. Drugland went on air at a time during the key post-Christmas period when many families plan their holidays.

And if anything the problem appears to be getting worse. This week a 27-year-old Irish clubber died after taking a drug known as liquid ecstasy. A dozen people were given emergency hospital treatment after partying in the same area and fears were growing that further clubbers could be exposed to a particularly dangerous batch. A British girl died earlier this summer.

The drug of choice, though, remains ecstasy, the pill. It is difficult to visit one of the clubs without being exposed to it. In the lavatory of one club just days after the Irish man's death I saw a dealer work his way down a line of urinating twentysomethings offering them E. Those who accepted felt that, at €5 (£3) a pill, they were getting a good deal.

But it's not all about drugs. The shows being staged at Ibiza's leading clubs are unquestionably stunning. From rooms full of hundreds of people bouncing, to relaxed rooftop zones, the promoters continue to shock, stun and entertain.

On the top of Pacha, Ibiza's sumptuous portside destination, a woman in a G-string with silver stars covering her nipples gyrates in a giant glass of champagne. Downstairs thousands dance and across the road P. Diddy relaxes in a luxury suite of the club's own hotel. It, the management assure me, has been booked out for months.

Club executives all insist that their businesses are not suffering as a result of the decline of the mass tourism market. To the contrary, they point out that budget airlines have allowed more people to come for fewer days and stay in more upmarket accommodation. Indeed, Danny Whittle, the managing director of Pacha insists that the club is packed every night. He rejects any suggestion that there has been a downturn. "We are doing incredible business. Ibiza changes and moves on and the club scene evolves, but in no way is it fading. What gambling is to Las Vegas, music has become to Ibiza."

With an opening due in New York later this year, though, a magazine and internet publications, the Pacha brand seems to be stronger than ever. More than 200,000 listeners a month tune into its radio station via the Web.

And tonight Pacha and DJ magazine will host a party celebrating the publication's 10th year on the island. Along with the Radio 1 extravaganza it is among the most eagerly awaited events of Ibiza's year. Fewer tourists taking a package in San Antonio does not seem to threaten such events and the aspirational culture they are rooted in.

Mr Whittle, however, does feel a certain sadness that what was a traditional route into Ibiza for young holidaymakers appears to be on the wane. "For many people here that was how they got into clubbing and Ibiza."

But he believes the future of tourism in Ibiza is secure. "A lot of those who first came here as kids a decade ago and partied all night every night are now coming back with families of their own. Now, though, they've got careers, credit cards and are looking for a little luxury. And they'll still want to go out to the clubs a couple of times. Their tastes and needs have changed and Ibiza needs to reflect that."

With its beautiful people and Miami-style, El Vivé is aiming for a niche market that many hope will provide a way forward for Ibiza. A couple of streets back from the front at Figueretes, it is close to some of the most repulsive hotels on the planet, and yet it is a world away. With a cool blue pool area, swanky bar and mellow sounds filling the air it has become a favourite of the 24-hour-party people who jet in from the UK to dance and be seen. A couple of years ago getting a room in August would have involved booking months in advance. Chilling out there last week though with his girlfriend Angie was Joel Ruff, 30, who booked his room just days earlier. "I'm amazed we managed to get into this place. You'd think it would be filled up all summer, but we called up just before flying out and here we are. We're having a great time here in Ibiza but it isn't as busy as we had expected. It's cool, but you do pay a lot of money for what you get."

Like soft drinks and burgers before it, club culture is globalising at an astonishing pace and that gives young tourists many more options for how to spend their summer. South-east Asia in particular has seen a series of high-profile club openings recently and Britons in particular are choosing to experiment with far-flung destinations.

In Ibiza, many more Spaniards and Italians are visiting than ever before, but bar owners complain that they don't spend money with the same gusto as their predecessors. That even has serious implications for the swanky establishments on the quayside in Ibiza town, traditionally a haunt of those on their way to the clubs.

Getting a table at midnight now is not a problem. "Things are nothing like they were," says Mariano Noriega, an Argentinian magician who has plied his trade on the port's bar terraces for two years. Flipping over an ace of diamonds, he sighs and adds: "I guess for me the party's over. I'm gonna move on somewhere else. I've been thinking of giving London a try."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments