martes, 2 de noviembre de 2010

The last ressort, Paul Richardson, The Independent

When Paul Richardson moved to Ibiza, he thought he had found the island of his dreams. But then came the tourist boom. And, in its wake, the drugs, the corruption, the money-laundering. A decade later, he's finally decided it's time to move on. Here, he explains how it all went wrong on paradise island.

Sunday, 15 April 2001

A deserted beach, the sea beyond it a blue so intense it is almost painful to the eyes. Olive groves, vineyards, a whitewashed farmhouse, and a shepherdess in traditional garb, tending her flock.
A deserted beach, the sea beyond it a blue so intense it is almost painful to the eyes. Olive groves, vineyards, a whitewashed farmhouse, and a shepherdess in traditional garb, tending her flock. The pictures in the brochure represent the dream of a Mediterranean landscape in all its pristine perfection, unpolluted and uninhabited, except by picturesque peasants and shiny, happy club kids. Beauty and pleasure in unlimited amounts. It sounds like paradise. It looks like paradise, until you remove the rose-tinted spectacles.
The airbrushed images used in the marketing of tourist hot spots have never had much bearing on reality. In the case of Ibiza, however, they can only be described as a grotesquely distorted version of the truth. Unless you are coming from some grey city in northern Europe for a week's sun and fun in the summer, this Spanish island is no earthly paradise but a small community with serious environmental and social problems caused, in part, by its very success as a tourist destination. To put it another way, Ibiza is an example of what can go wrong when a society that has lived in poverty and isolation for centuries is suddenly presented with an opportunity to make a great deal of money very quickly, and, 40 years later, seems unwilling to recognise that the party may be nearly over.
The facts are there for anyone to see, if only they can detach themselves from their dreams for long enough to see them. During the decade I have lived in Ibiza, the destruction wreaked on the island has been unrelenting. Tourism has increased year on year to the point where we now receive two million visitors a year, placing the island's scarce natural resources under unbearable strain. Excessive and inappropriate building, the scourge of many a nouveau-riche economy, has scarred huge swathes of coast and countryside. Conservation has been the last thing on anyone's mind in these gold-rush years, and the few remaining areas of virgin landscape are only half-heartedly protected. Sites of ecological and/or cultural importance, if they are not already built on, are rubbish-strewn and forlorn.
It was not ever thus. In 1953, Sandy Pratt, a garden designer, arrived on the weekly ferry from Barcelona and is still here, living quietly in a flat in Ibiza City. He remembers being stunned by the delectable beauty of an island so remote that even mainland Spaniards had never heard of it. "It was primitive and innocent and it was the most perfect place I'd ever seen," he says. "There was no asphalt, no cars, no rubbish, no cement. The entire island was like one enormous garden, with 30,000 gardeners to tend it. There wasn't anything that wasn't beautiful. I was aware that I would have to make the most of this idyll, because it couldn't possibly last."
When I myself first arrived here in 1989, if not quite stunned, I knew I had stumbled on something special. My village, the quaintly named Santa Gertrudis, consisted of a church, a cluster of bars and modest village houses around a tiny square. The foreign presence was limited to a handful of expats, mostly first-wave hippies and elderly bohemians, who pitched up at Can Costa to while away the morning over cafe con leche, stirring themselves eventually to visit the fax and telephone bureau across the way. Communications in rural Ibiza, in the last decade of the last century, were still improbably poor. No one I knew in those days had a phone line, and mobile phones, e-mail and the internet were still undreamed of sophistications. Many of the incomers lived in ancient whitewashed farmhouses without electricity or running water, paying nominal rents based on antiquated contracts.
Mass tourism had been Ibiza's over- whelmingly dominant industry for more than 20 years. Subsistence agriculture, which over centuries created the island's landscape of terraced fields and dry-stone walls, had been left in the care of a few elderly farmers who struggled to maintain it. The ibicenco population was already in a minority of 35 per cent, after immigration by guest-workers, mostly from Andalucía, brought over during the Sixties and Seventies to fill the demand for builders, waiters and chamber-maids. Wealthy Germans, British, French and Italians had made inroads into the market for farmhouses which they would swiftly modernise, surrounding them with English lawns and Moroccan palmeraies. The big discotheques were up and running, but the commercial possibilities inherent in the combination of rave music and MDMA had yet to be fully exploited.
The late Eighties were lean years for tourism in Ibiza. The lager lout phenomenon in San Antonio ­ unforgettably associated, for me, with the biting off of a policeman's ear by an English tourist in the summer of 1990 ­ brought the island some of the worst publicity it would receive until Ibiza Uncovered. A deep recession in northern Europe exacerbated the situation. For a year or two, visitor numbers actually fell. It seemed that mass tourism was on the decline, and that Ibiza might have to look for a more intelligent way of exploiting its natural and cultural resources. There was talk of year-round tourism, and of a turismo de calidad ("quality tourism") that would bring in the middle-class market with its far greater spending power. Some effort was even made, cynically enough, to promote Ibiza and Formentera as a paradise of "green tourism", verdant and unspoilt.
But then came the fat years, and this minor existential crisis was swept away by a wave of gleeful commercialism. The economic boom of the Nineties had been underpinned by tourism but boosted massively by the island's other great powerhouse industry: construction. In part, the building boom is a simple response to demand: more tourists mean more hotels, more apartments, more rural second homes, a bigger airport. It is also partly explained by the imminent arrival of the euro, which has forced those in possession of black money to launder it speedily ­ and nothing washes whiter than real estate.
Either way, its effects are unmistakable. In 10 years, the island's charming capital (affectionately known as Vila) has sprawled chaotically in all directions, an uncontrolled mess of cheaply built apartment blocks. The former fishing village of Santa Eulària, now one of the island's major resort towns, continues to spill northwards towards Es Canar, creating a miniature Costa del Sol along the east coast. Controls over building quality and aesthetics on land officially categorised as suelo urbano (urban land), which includes large stretches of coast, are so vague as to be meaningless ­ and it shows.
Out in the countryside, it is a similar story. The various governments of the Balearic Islands last year jointly declared a controversial moratorium on building in suelo rustico. But it has come too late. Formerly rural parts of southern Ibiza are now so built-up they resemble American suburbs ­ indeed local author Mariano Planells claims the island is now more a kind of "garden city" than a rural environment per se. The whitewashed organic forms of the traditional farmhouse, with its mysterious whiff of the Orient, have given way to the bourgeois chale, replete with balustrades, swimming pool and fences patrolled by snarling Rottweilers. The new urbanizaciones (to use the richly expressive Spanish term) ranged around the old centre of Santa Gertrudis are an especially sad example of urban planning applied to the rural context with, in my view, disastrous results. The houses in Sa Nova Gertrudis are a Marbella-style fantasy of suburban luxury, picked out in a peculiar shade of brown masquerading as ochre, while the asphalt roads, built on a grid pattern, are dotted with the usual street furniture of piles of rubble, futuristic street lamps and dead fruit trees dusted with cement.
Many of the changes in Ibiza's modus vivendi over the past decade boil down to sheer demographics. The resident population in 1998 was 84,220, following an increase of 10 per cent over the previous 10 years, and may now be nearer 100,000 (of which a 10th, incidentally, are non-Spanish). Current predictions suggest that if all available suelo urbano is built on, as seems likely, a ceiling of 125,000 may soon be reached. Take that thought and add to it another: on an average day in high summer, a quarter of a million people, tourists and residents, are crammed on to an island just 40km long and 20km wide. On average, 1,400 new tourist beds are made available every year, adding to the super-saturation.
The recent history of the island's famous nightclubs is proof of a fine old ibicenco saying, "s'ha perdut per massa" ­ loosely translated as "too many cooks spoil the broth". The original discotecas of the late Eighties were ridiculously glamorous and madly hedonistic, part of the dolce vita of post-Franco Spain. What made them remarkable was both the variegated nature of their clientele ­ jet set and hippies and fashion folk and locals ­ and their atmosphere of unbridled fiesta, which was only partly drug-induced. It is a complex tale, but two main factors have led to their demise in the late Nineties: the arrival of the English as supreme masters of the scene, converting Ibiza clubbing into a multi-million-pound industry, and the massive abuse of drugs (notably ecstasy) among the teenagers that are today's club cannon fodder.
The scale of the debauchery at superclubs like Space, which opens at 8am and closes in the afternoon, is not a pretty sight ­ the gurning faces, the young people staggering dazedly around the fringes of the dancefloor or lying in sweaty comatose heaps on the terrace. "I miss the smiles, the sparkle in people's eyes," says Vera Shell, a Brazilian party organiser who has spent 15 years as a queen of the Ibiza night. "The nightlife here has lost its charm. There is no art in it any more. The discos are entirely and exclusively about consumption, to such an extreme that the point of the party is just to get as drugged up as possible."
Ibiza was always an island of excess. DJ José Padilla, godfather of the Café del Mar chill-out scene, arrived in 1975, when island nightlife "had nothing to do with today. It was wilder. People were less materialistic, more human. Now you wonder whether they are people or robots. You see them file into the clubs, and they come out empty. I feel they're manipulated by the club industry, by the clubbing magazines, by the drugs. The drug thing has gone too far. Did you know there's a new drug around and if you drink alcohol with it you die? And this is what they call having a good time?"
But now Ibiza also has the disease of affluence: as a society, it simply consumes and discards too much of everything. In 10 years, the number of cars on Ibiza has risen by 52 per cent, so that there are now more cars than people ­ the highest such ratio in the whole of Europe. In high summer, the island's two main roads (Ibiza-San Antonio and Ibiza-Santa Eulària) are having to support a density of 30,000 vehicles a day: twice the advisable limit for roads of this size. Ibiza consumes more electricity and produces more rubbish per head of population than anywhere else in Spain. In August last year, the island generated more than 400 metric tons of garbage every day ­ a 10 per cent increase on 1999. Most of this refuse ends up at a gigantic dump at Cala Llonga which has been recently condemned by the European Commission for its contamination of the water table. Under European law, Ibiza is supposed to recycle at least 25 per cent of its domestic waste by 2004. So far it can barely manage 3 per cent.
Those residents with long memories remember that, once upon a time, the island was rich in water. Streams babbled across the landscape; springs bubbled out of the rocks. There was even a river that ran all year round ­ the Riu de Santa Eulària, still sadly signposted as you cross the dusty river bed. Tourism has sucked the island dry. There has been no river for 20 years, and most of the springs have disappeared. Of all the problems Ibiza faces, potentially the most serious is water ­ or the lack of it. If it weren't for two new desalination plants in San Antonio and Ibiza City the situation would already be desperate. Of the seven underground water sources supplying the island, five have been so over-exploited that sea-water has seeped in, rendering the water undrinkable and unsuitable for irrigation. It is illegal to sink new wells without permission, yet they are still being dug all the time, reaching ever deeper into the rock. My neighbours on the farm next door are digging as I write, the heavy machinery making the mountainside quake and groan. Word in the village is that they have reached 200m and still not found water.
It is now nearly April and the dust whirls around the parched fields. It hasn't rained properly since last autumn, and my almond trees are suffering. Some have already died, and many more will perish in the coming months. While this winter in mainland Spain, agricultural land has been laid waste by flooding, here it has been frazzled by the worst drought in living memory. Here on my smallholding in the far north of the island, one of the last corners of Ibiza relatively untouched by development, I have watched in despair for the last three years as successive crops of beans, wheat and barley have struggled to germinate and then shrivelled in the bone-dry winter wind. Already the drought and the weird weather patterns seem like a harbinger of climate change. How much further the process will go is anybody's guess ­ perhaps to full-scale desertification, as is already happening in parts of Almería and Murcia on Spain's south-east coast.
But the social climate of the island, famously benign, is changing too. For years the curiosity and tolerance of the ibicencos ensured that a certain equilibrium prevailed between local and expatriate populations. Equally, locals were as happy to sell off their crumbling farmhouses for astronomic prices as foreigners were happy to take them off their hands. But something had to give. With the morality that comes with new money, the ibicencos are more likely than ever to disapprove of foreign fecklessness. Traditional rural culture, the island's psychological cornerstone, is finally dying, and ibicenco society feels increasingly sullen and anxious. Spray-painted graffiti that has begun appearing in Catalan on walls and buildings: "No more land to be sold to the Germans. Don't sell your heritage." It may be the work of mischievous kids, but it is my sense that more and more ibicencos share that view. "The land isn't for us country people any more ­ it's only for the rich foreigners who fence in their farms and tell the locals to get lost if they come too close," says Toni Ferrer, a farmer near the German enclave of Sant Carles.
In the face of all this gloom, what the island needs are political solutions. And political solutions are what it voted for in the local elections of June 1999 when, in a historic overturning of the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) that had governed the island since the death of Franco, the Pacte Progressista was swept to power. Earlier that year, the population had turned out in force to demonstrate against a proposed golf course at Cala d'Hort, a beauty spot on the south-west coast opposite the much-photographed rock of Es Vedra. But the protest was as much about reckless and unsustainable development in general as about any act of urbanismo in particular. In an opinion poll that year no less than 81 per cent of those questioned said they opposed any further increase in tourism.
A loose coalition of socialists and Greens headed up by a brilliant young lawyer named Pilar Costa, the Pacte Progressista seemed to offer a way out of the impasse. Many voters saw Costa and her friends as the last chance saloon, if Ibiza was to retain anything of the quiet beauty that attracted the tourists in the first place. Two years on, however, the new regime has had little real success. The Cala d'Hort project was promptly quashed, and certain other dubious urbanizaciones have been put on hold. But the controversial enlargement of the port of Ibiza, which rides roughshod over the majority of island residents who rejected it from the start, has been allowed to proceed, threatening the wholesale uglification of one of the Mediterranean's loveliest harbours.
Meanwhile, areas of outstanding natural beauty and/or historical importance are still awaiting proper protection. To give just one of many possible examples: behind the disco Pacha, not many E-addled clubbers know that there is a wetland whose irrigation channels and stone arches were built by the Arabs over 800 years ago. Ses Feixes is now a depressing wasteland, utterly abandoned, its canals choked with refuse and supermarket trolleys. Two Arab arches were recently demolished by an errant bulldozer. Down-and-outs have turned another into a makeshift dwelling. The area has been promised a recovery plan, but as yet nothing has been done.
The Pacte is generally perceived to have been a failure. In reality, its best efforts have been stymied by the arrogance of the construction and tourist industries, the furious opposition of the PP in the town halls where they are still the dominant party, and by a legal system of such Dickensian sluggishness and complexity that conservationist legislation is made almost impossible to enforce.
Society may have changed its attitude to development, but the construction and tourist industries have assuredly not. The so-called ecotax, a modest levy on tourists arriving in the Balearic Islands ­ the money going towards environmental and restoration projects ­ has had hoteliers and tour operators up in arms. The moratorium on building in suelo rustico is both hugely resented by the town halls and patently flouted by them, as anyone can see from the turreted and balustraded villas that continue to sprout like toxic mushrooms on the hillsides.
What, then, is the future for Ibiza? If the Pacte is unable to stop the rot, it is not one I would care to be around for. In the short term, there could be trouble ahead. Last summer saw cuts in the water supply at some tourist resorts. This year there will be more, not to mention more dry or salted wells, more dead trees, a greater risk of forest fires, and a greater sense of despondency among long-suffering rural ibicencos. The longer term is harder to predict. In the worst of all worlds, if beach tourism goes out of fashion with rising summer temperatures, and ecstasy-based clubbing falls from favour, the island could face, at the very least, a dramatic turnaround in its economic fortunes. Ibiza needs to wake up and smell the cafe con leche.
For many of my foreign friends and neighbours, the dream of Ibiza is still very much alive. "Ah, but isn't this still a beautiful island?" they ask rhetorically, a little wounded by the suggestion that it may not be. They do not all have the long view of Sandy Pratt, who will shortly be celebrating his 50th year in Ibiza. Sandy is fully conscious of the island's problems ­ apart from anything else, the water problem will become a major issue for the island's gardeners ­ but knows from experience that a person can get used to anything. "There used to be the most wonderful avenue of trees, along the road to Santa Eulàlia. When they were building the new road they had to pull them up. I said if they ever pulled them up, I'd leave the island. Well, they pulled them up. And I'm still here," he shrugs.
As for me, I am voting with my feet. By the time you read this, I will be on my way westwards with all my worldly goods, to a part of Spain almost as little known, uncontaminated and cheap as Ibiza was in the Fifties, before greed and lack of vision brought the island to this pretty pass. Where I am headed is a place of copious water ­ as Ibiza used to be. Streams and rivers run through the landscape all year round. After centuries of poverty, the region is poised for economic growth, but its leaders appear to have realised that the change must be carefully managed. Tourism will be small-scale and high-quality. Agriculture has always been traditional and organic, and therefore faces a brilliant future.
A stable society, committed to sustainable development and turismo de calidad. Unlimited fresh water, few foreigners, and not a disco in sight. Now that's what I call paradise.

The Independent,
Gran Bretaña.