Hundreds of sweaty clubbers are crammed onto at the Glitterbox dance floor, soaking up the grooves as one of Ibiza’s biggest party nights gets into full swing.
Laser beams scatter overhead. Electronic beats intensify. Arms are held aloft and the energy rushes higher and higher in anticipation. And then, ahead of the next thunderous bass drop, a divine moment of silence.
That was 2019. This year, it’s just been the silence.
It’s still summer season on Spain’s Balearic Islands and, if it wasn’t for coronavirus, the hard partying would normally be in full swing, with young Europeans packing the sandy beaches, bars and super clubs of Ibiza.
“There’s no tourism at all, now, on our island,” says Juan Miguel Costa, Ibiza’s tourism director. “Just a few people coming just for a few days.”
“We had a very bad summer. And the thing is that we will have a very, very bad winter.”
Ibiza is perhaps the best-known Balearic island, attracting everyone from celebrities who arrive on superyachts, to planeloads of young British and German tourists looking for a good time. An underground dance party scene that arrived in the 1980s has matured decades later into an internationally renowned tourism industry all of its own.
But thanks to a summer characterized by Covid quarantines, shuttered nightclubs and canceled flights — the Balearic Islands, alongside other European party hotspots across the Mediterranean — are suffering from an abysmal hangover without even having enjoyed the night before.
And with no prospect of the fun returning anytime soon, the situation is inevitably prompting locals who rely on income generated by the islands’ nightlife to reconsider a future without it.
To some extent, it was already on the cards with plans to try move away from the reputation for alcohol excess and hedonism. Back in January 2020, the Balearics pledged to team new regulations with a conscious shift towards “sustainable and respectful tourism,” aiming to force “real change in the tourist model of these destinations.”
A series of laws designed to curb alcohol excess in the tourist hubs of San Antonio, Ibiza and Magaluf and Playa de Palma on the island of Mallorca, including banning happy hours, party boats promoting drunken cruises and pub crawls, were introduced by the regional government.
Rosana Morillo, general director of tourism for the Balearic Islands, tells CNN Travel that the current situation is being used as a opportunity to consider further ways to change the destination’s reputation, while some, like Ibiza’s Juan Miguel Costa hope that clubbing will return, but balanced with other highlights like heritage, culture, beaches and sports.
Either way, in the age of coronavirus, the future of the party vacation destination lies in the balance.
Season cut short
The summer of 2020 hasn’t been a total write off for the Spanish islands, although northern Europe lockdowns and travel bans, particularly in Germany and the UK, kept most of their visitors away in the spring.
In June, the island of Mallorca successfully ran a pilot plan for German visitors, which says Morillo, allowed it to be marketed as a safe destination.
By July, the introduction of travel corridors made weeks away in Spain, Greece and other European countries a possibility for British travelers ready to brave the flight, and the Balaerics managed to clock up 1 million visitors in July.
But by late July, in the face of rising figures in certain Spanish regions, the UK government imposed a 14-day quarantine on all travelers returning from the Mediterranean country. Travelers scrambled to get back home, and future trips were canceled. Visitors from elsewhere also dried up, with the German Foreign Office advising against travel to Spain.
“After losing our two main markets, the flow of visitors has been really close to zero,” says Morillo.
The result, she says, is the islands will likely lose about 30% of its annual income.
Those that who decided to accept the quarantine and head there anyway — if they could find a flight — were met with a very different kind of vacation.
The bustling Mallorca strip was laid bare. Ibiza’s super clubs were boarded up.
While bars can open in Spain, so long as they maintain social distancing and don’t allow dancing, many businesses decided it wasn’t financially viable.
“Most of them [in Ibiza] decided not to open, that was the first impact,” says Costa, adding that those that did had only around 45 to 50% of the visitors they’d had the year before.
Areas like San Antonio, depend on British tourism, says Costa.
Despite decreased capacity, there were still local accounts of drunken tourists refusing to wear masks, failing to social distance and acting recklessly.
“Always you can find people who were not so civic, and they don’t follow the rules,” says Costa. “But most of them they respect, and they covered all the healthy measures we had implemented.”
In Mallorca, all bars on Punta Ballena street were closed mid-July following reports that the “mainly British tourists there, and the bar operators themselves,” were not complying with the rules, a spokesman for the Balearics regional government told CNN back in July.
But Morillo says the majority of visitors to the Balearics were compliant with the rules, and praises the islands’ hotels for their “high standards.”
Of all the Balearics, Mallorca has a particularly strong reputation as a raucous destination for recently graduated British high schoolers, who head there to party and let off steam.
As Brit James Sawyer, 23, describes it: “The strip transports a night out in Leeds [a university city in the north of England] to a nicer climate. Virtually everyone’s English and it’s essentially Neverland.”
For tourists used to partying in the Balearics, not being able to do so this summer was a disappointment.
“It’s a rough year for holidays in general,” says British traveler Jack Painter, a big fan of house music and a long-time visitor to Ibiza.
“It’s been rubbish not being able to go away properly, but me and my friends who would normally go to party destinations have had to make do with partying in Airbnbs in the UK.”
Meanwhile, Sawyer says he’s less worried about the risk of catching Covid abroad, and more concerned with how quarantining and isolating back in the UK would impact his job.
Painter agrees — he says his main reason for not going to the Balearics this year is the threat of quarantine.
“The only thing that would put me off would be having to quarantine in the UK when I got back,” he says. “Even if some of the superclubs are shut, many of the bars in the Balearics still have a great atmosphere and play quality dance music, plus the islands themselves have loads more to offer beyond the partying — it might be time to take more advantage of that side of life on the islands.”
Morillo says the Covid crisis has been an opportunity to continue conversations with those in tourism sector about the islands’ future.
“They have understood that this is not the future we want, and that this current situation is an opportunity for us to change our model, for the hotels to change the offers they make based on these, let’s say, alcohol consumption and cheap holidays,” she says.
Because even if virus cases dwindle again, and countries lift their quarantines, a clubbing vacation is largely out of the question in the age of Covid.
Live events and gigs are off the table. Clubs remain closed. Gathering in crowds of hundreds or thousands seems unthinkable.
In the US, college students who headed off to Spring break in US party hotspots in Mexico, Florida were pinpointed as the source of virus outbreaks.
And more recently, an airplane full of reportedly rowdy passengers traveling from the Greek island of Zante — another Mediterranean island with a partying reputation — back to the UK was forced to isolate upon return after 16 people tested positive for the virus as a direct result of the flight.
Costa is keen to emphasize Ibiza’s suitability as a family vacation destination, and its beautiful nature and heritage.
But he also doesn’t want to discount the importance of the island’s thriving, world-famous nightlife.
“What is in our mind is to be able to let people know that in Ibiza we have nightlife, as well, of course we have parties, but as well we have other products that are really interesting.
If you are a family with two kids, you can come to Ibiza without any problem […] It’s not a full party island. That’s what we try to let people know, that is important for us.”
He admits he’s concerned about the future of the island’s big clubs in the age of Covid-19 — he’s worried about the Balearic Islands tourism situation more generally.
Morillo says she hopes if the virus situation improves in the Balearics, the British quarantine might be lifted allowing for winter tourism to tide business over until summer 2021.
“At the beginning of next season, there will be places which have been closed for 18 months, and that’s a long time without any money,” says Costa.
Business owners can get some help with the local government and the central government, as can furloughed workers.
But despite his fears about the future, tourism officials are confident things will change, if and when a vaccine becomes readily available.
“This is just 2020 and we have to forget it,” says Costa.