Spain’s disco island toils to make partying pay
Sunburnt and full of beer and rum, thousands of Britons cheer as their national treasure Elton John takes the stage, in a glittery purple jacket under a Spanish sunset.
On Ibiza, island of parties, this is the biggest of the summer: a festival of top singers and DJs aiming to draw more foreign fun-seekers than ever to fuel its tourism industry — one of the few economic motors still turning in Spain.
Outside the open-air concert site in Sant Antoni, ground zero for the British clubbing scene on the north of the island, the discos are packed by night and the beaches by day, with little outward sign of Spain’s crippling recession.
But along with the millions of German, British, Italian and French tourists for whom the island is Spain’s best-known brand, there are other newcomers: Spaniards themselves, heading to Ibiza and the other Balearic Islands in search of work.
Bryce, a Spanish engineer of 26, came to Ibiza in February from the northern industrial city of A Coruna after he was made redundant.
“A friend told me, come to Ibiza, you’ll find a job as a waiter no problem. Where is there no crisis? In Ibiza,” he says, standing on the terrace of the bar where he landed a summer job in Ibiza City, the island’s capital.
“But I was very lucky. We have a stack of CVs here this high,” from other job-hunters, he says, holding his hands apart several inches. “And if you have work here, you have to work longer hours because they won’t hire more people.”
Driven by a soaring jobless rate across Spain, the new arrivals must compete with foreign night club touts and others who for years have funded their summers of clubbing and sunshine through temporary jobs.
“I’ve been here the past four years. It’s a lot harder this year” to find work, says Kirstie Patterson, 22, from northeast England, standing deeply tanned in a red and white bikini by Sant Antoni’s baking seafront.
“Because of how bad things are financially here, there’s double the amount of workers looking this year,” adds Patterson, who has got a summer job scouting on the beaches for a London-based model agency.
“And there’s only a certain amount of work.”
For all the strengths of the tourism sector, it cannot generate enough jobs to meet demand in the recession, brought on by the collapse of a building boom that has driven national unemployment above 24 percent.
“The number of jobs available here is staying more or less level,” says Roberto Hortensius, president of the Sant Antoni hotel-owners’ federation, whose own establishment caters mainly to Germans.
“During the building boom, workers from the hotel sector left to find jobs in construction which was better paid. So there are a lot of people now looking for work. There isn’t much left for people from outside.”
“Perhaps they think there is more of a job market here, but there isn’t,” adds his friend Juanjo Planells, manager of a 100-bed hotel in Sant Antoni.
“It’s spectacular: in one week we received 500 CVs in our business.”
Figures from the Balearics regional government indicate fewer visitors have come so far in 2012 compared to 2011, which was a good year for the islands as tourists shunned North Africa because of civil unrest.
Authorities have for years been casting around for ways to diversify tourism on the Balearics so they can compete better with rival sunspots further east, and now there is added urgency to create jobs.
Carmen Ferrer, Ibiza’s councillor for tourism, says the island is trying to remould itself as a destination for families, outdoor sports and even corporate events, and to extend the main tourist season beyond the June to August period.
“We want to be open as many months as possible and make an effort to have as much hotel occupation as possible so that businesses can employ more people for longer,” she says.
Meanwhile businesses on Ibiza are worried about other side-effects of the crisis, such as a mooted rise in value-added tax that they say would choke them.
On top of this, a surplus of unsold properties built during the boom, they say, has spawned a market in cheap, unregulated holiday home rentals that is undercutting them.
“We are very worried,” says Hortensius. “Apart from the fact that they offer no guarantees and aren’t subject to health controls or other regulations, it is a big black market. It doesn’t create jobs and destroys legal business.”
In a separate move to help the industry, the Balearics regional authorities have passed a legal reform making it easier for registered tourism businesses to expand their facilities.
Hotel owners have welcomed that reform, but some tourism workers complain that it also makes it easier to change tourism-related properties into private dwellings, threatening jobs.
“All the government is doing is helping businesses make more money,” says Antonio Copete, leader of the major labour union UGT on Ibiza’s neighbouring island Mallorca. “They are doing nothing for the workers.”
Pending negotiations, unions on the Balearics have threatened a strike on July 20, with up to 100,000 drivers, cleaners, waiters and others urged to stay off work, on top of other possible actions by teachers and doctors.
“It’s going to be a very hot summer,” warned the Ibiza newspaper Prensa Pitiusa. “If an agreement isn’t reached, tourists, patients and pupils should be prepared.”
At a restaurant by the sweltering bay of Sant Antoni sit six of the island’s latest arrivals: Jordan Bass, 18, and his five mates, all from greater London.
“It’s a stereotypical place to go for a lads’ holiday. It’s quite cheap compared to other holidays,” says Jordan, on day one of a week-long stay. “We’re mostly thinking beaches and clubs.”
“Don’t forget the girls,” adds his friend Michael Langlands, 19.
“We’ll drink until we fall down,” says a third member of the group, Steven Magle, 19.
Ibiza has for decades been a classic disco and beach resort but councillor Ferrer says part of her job is to develop its reputation as well as its economic activity.
“There is a reputation that people come here for out-of-control partying, that there’s usually sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The reputation Ibiza has sometimes puts families off coming here,” she says.
“We have a job to do to make it known that it is not like that.”