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The Decadence of Ibiza

The human condition is seen at its most extravagant and garish in the tourist hot spots of the world.

It´s hard to write about islands in the Mediterranean Sea without slipping into the kind of cliched descriptions of picturesque nature normally found in a travel brochure. But no matter how many times one writes about the crystal clear waters, the shady pine forests and the olive groves that line the roadsides, it doesn’t stop them from being beautiful.

The charm of the island is at work on many levels and its character is the product of many cultural invasions, some for the better and others decidedly for the worse. Roman, Arabic and European empires have swept through this island, shaping the architecture, dress and cuisine of this culture that the locals call Ibizenco. They even have their own dialect apart from the mainland Spanish though it seems that only the old people speak it with any regularity.

In the 60´s the hippies were not slow to recognise Ibiza as an island paradise. They followed on the heels of the earlier arrivals of artists and musicians to make Ibiza a haven of alternative lifestyles.

Franco´s fascist regime was still going strong back then and his iron grip kept Spain firmly in the past. The authoritarian rule stretched even into the domain of morality and it wasn’t unheard of for a couple to be arrested if they were caught kissing in public. With the death of Franco in 1977, Spain opened up fully to consumer forces and received yet another terrible and overwhelming invasion. Tourism.

Spain has a population of 48 million yet receives around 60 million visitors from abroad each year. Hordes of two week holiday makers descend upon the coastline to drink themselves senseless in the midday sun and fry their skin a lobster red. And though it´s an old cliche, they really do ask the locals:

WHERE IS THE BEACH?” in English or German, imagining that shouting will somehow bridge the communications gap.

The majority of the tourist that come to Ibiza have their sights set on the notorious night life. The most prestigious DJ´s in Europe come to play on the island and the world knows Ibiza as the place to party. In summertime the clubs are in overdrive, staging parties every day of the week. With names like Privilege, Space or Amnesia, these establishments are the purist example of hedonism to be found in Europe.

They´re also the purest example of unbridled extortion. Roughly speaking they´ll receive about 5000 guests or more each night, each one paying $30 for the entrance. That´s $150,000 just to start.

Then, even worse than the absurdly priced beers and spirits available at the bar, they make an absolute killing on selling water. Knowing that through ingestion of party stimulants and hours of dancing their customers will need to rehydrate themselves, the clubs salt the water supply in the bathroom so that no one can drink from the taps. A 300ml bottle of water at the bar can cost $6. On a hot night the average person needs to drink at least 5 of these. Add on other miscellaneous sideline businesses such as sales of club merchandise and these places must rival the GDP of small countries in peak season. And if they ever find a way to sell the air that we breathe you can be sure that they won´t hesitate.

The parties themselves are generally catered to one particular nationality as a German DJ will play for the Germans and an English DJ for the English. Whoever said that ´travel broadens the mind´ obviously never came to Ibiza. The productions also attempt to draw in more customers with various cabaret acts throughout the night. Performances range from acrobatic troupes to rather unimaginative sex shows. One guy with double-jointed hips was billed as giving himself a oral sex on stage.

Sometimes I can´t help but wonder what say, the average Indian peasant would make of it all. But then actually many of them have told me that they believe the West to be like this all the time. And perhaps most of the party-goers would like it to be. But the reality is that they work the other 50 weeks of the year so that they can come and let it all out in Ibiza.

There´s a village on the South side of the island called San Antonio where in summertime the English outnumber the Spanish living there. In high season people can be seen asleep on the pavement, too drunk to make it back to their rooms. Nearby fights will break out between rowdy young guys from London over who´s buying the next round of drinks.

An indication of how much trouble the English in particular create on this island can be seen in an incident that occurred a couple of years ago. There was an English consul on the island who was in charge of sorting out all the problems caused by his citizens car crashes, theft, debauchery etc. But finally he could take it no more. He flipped and went on a drink driving binge for three days, creating as much mayhem as the people he was supposed to represent.

But if the locals have no great love or respect for the tourism, they´re also fully aware that these drunken visitors with peeling sun-burnt skin are their bread and butter. Without the influx of foreign visitors each year Ibiza would have no other significant industry to support itself. As it is everyone works every day in the summertime and then spends the winter taking things easy. And in the competition to fleece the tourists of their holiday cash there is no such thing as a gap in the market.

There are bars and cafes catering to the decor and cuisine of ever nationality in Europe; there are agencies renting cars, bikes and scooters; people run excursions and tours to every part of the island; shops sell the kind of souvenir junk that no one would ever buy once sober again in their home countries and, of course, there are mountains and mountains of apartments and villas all over the island.

And this last factor is, for me, the real tragedy of tourism. The loudmouth antics and cultural misunderstanding all fade away but if no one was to come to visit Ibiza ever again the island would still be left with the legacy of construction. Thousands of gleaming white concrete monstrosities blemish almost very nice spot on the island. For while it may a selling point that every apartment has a view of the beach, the logical conclusion is that every beach thus has a view of an apartment.

These holiday homes appear like parasitic mould in the middle of hills rolling with green pine forests. And they´re building more and more. The demand is so great that whenever plans for a new construction is approved, every prospective apartment is sold before they even start to build them. And with the introduction of the Euro there was a lot of undeclared wealth in the old currency of pesetas that needed to be laundered. And there are few easier ways to achieve that than through construction. It´s a process whose costs are so variable that it´s almost impossible for the tax man to keep track.

So this is the Ibiza that is known to the world, an isle of decadence that illustrates that the road to excess surely does not end in wisdom. At least not for the the party tourists who still have trouble remembering on which side of the road to drive. But there´s another side to the island which needs an introduction all of its own.