I’ve been walking for three hours when I finally reach Calo de s’Illa, a magical bay on the northwest coast of Ibiza. To get here, I have followed a snaking track across the roof of the island, edged by a nerve-shredding clifftop with a 150-metre sea drop, and squeezed through a narrow path bristling with thorny scrub.
The bay is a treat worth persevering for. It’s as lovely and unusual as any I’ve found in Europe. There’s no sand: instead, I walk across a rocky, sea-level plateau, pockmarked with craters created by eroding salt. Guidebooks refer to Calo de s’Illa as a lunar beach, but with its rusty red, grey and lime-green hues, it feels more Martian.
Ibiza is the smallest of the Balearic islands and this bay seems a long way from anywhere. It is certainly far, figuratively speaking, from the face that Ibiza presents to the world – a face that’s had plenty of negative press. In 2007, a panel of 522 experts in sustainable tourism, aided by George Washington University, ranked Ibiza joint worst out of 111 islands around the world for environmental impact. Places such as Calo de s’Illa may be part of an embryonic shift away from this low point. There are now moves towards a style of tourism that leaves a lighter footprint and encourages Ibiza to reveal its natural charms such as the drumbeat of woodpeckers and the melody of cuckoos, rather than the club rhythms of Ibiza town.
Ibiza already has the basis for a more judicious tourism model. It is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site, a Ramsar site (certified by the international Convention on Wetlands), and two protected sea reserves. The island also has 178 species of plants, including Mediterranean pinewoods, coastal cliff vegetation and centuries-old ghost trees, along with 210 species of birds including flamingoes, the black-winged stilt, shelduck, the snowy plover and the Balearic shearwater.
Walking holidays could be one way for Ibiza to diversify its tourism offering. ‘Walking attracts a different person,’ says Hazel Morgan, president of Ibiza Friends of the Earth (FOE). ‘If it was extended it could change Ibiza, but there would have to be enough demand for it to work. Coastal walking is a good option. There are wonderful views off the coast and the offshore islands. There are remote tracks and places where you can’t get any mobile phone signal.’
My walks along the coast and through Ibiza’s substantial rural hinterland take me through unnamed valleys sprinkled with remote houses and farmsteads, past orange and lemon groves, carob trees, and low walls of warm sandstone colonised by poppies. I’m not sure what I thought Ibiza might remind me of before I visited, but I’m sure it wasn’t the Cotswolds.
That’s not to downplay the environmental problems that Ibiza faces. Critics of Ibiza’s tourism-related horrors aren’t short of damning material. The fundamental problem, says Sandra Benbeniste, co-ordinator of the Ibiza Preservation Fund, was the island’s decision to throw its lot in with high-intensity package tourism. ‘Ninety per cent of people live on tourism directly or indirectly,’ she says, ‘so they depend on a five-month season. That puts a strain on resources, on water, the landscape. You need more and more people coming in during these months because that is when you make the most money.’
Most visibly, housing developments and sports facilities, such as golf courses, have enclosed nature reserves, while magnificently ugly hotels have been dumped on top of exquisite bays in pursuit of the premium view and premium dollar.
Out of sight, aquifers are a source of even greater concern, with ‘people drilling too much, too deep,’ says Benbeniste. The result is that salt water gets in and Ibiza FOE believes all the island aquifers are now mixed with salt water. ‘People don’t want limitations, because that has implications if you want to build houses with a swimming pool,’ adds Benbeniste.
Sewage is another problem, and plants now struggle to cope in high season, according to Morgan, who sighs as she declares that the island’s waste infrastructure is deficient. ‘All sewage plants function inadequately. They operate beyond capacity in summer, so sewage flows where it shouldn’t.’
Tourism may also be eroding one of Ibiza’s great natural treasures, the abundant underwater meadows of Posidonia oceanica, a plant only found in the Mediterranean. Posidonia oxygenates the water, helping to maintain communities of fish and other underwater organisms. For the most part it is out of sight, only noticed when it washes up and dries out on beaches. There, its soft, downy texture provides a pillow for many a late-night clubber.
‘Hundreds of boats scrape up against the Posidonia,’ says Benbeniste. ‘If it disappears, it will really have an impact on the beaches. Nobody knows how many boats come in each year – 100,000? It’s difficult to argue for fewer boats to come into Ibiza.’
The frustration of environmental organisations is palpable. ‘It’s very difficult to find people in Ibiza who care about the environment,’ says Benbeniste. ‘We are the minority. Many people who live and work in the tourism industry see the environment as a threat.’
Despite this, she understands their mentality. ‘You must remember that Ibiza was poor as recently as the 1960s,’ she says. ‘When you come from a poor situation, you want to make as much money as you can. The view is that if you don’t do it, then your neighbour will.’
During my walk across the island I see first hand evidence of islanders striving to regain control and preserve their cultural identity. I’m struck by the ubiquity of the local language, Ibicenco, a dialect of Catalan spoken to a staccato beat – markedly different from the fluidity of Castilian Spanish. My walks deposit me each night at agroturismo ventures, the Ibizan equivalent of farm diversification. Under this scheme, farmers are given money to convert buildings that are more than 60 years old.
In the north of the island, in the village of St Joan, I stay at one such building, Can Fuster, or the House of the Carpenter. The house is 150 years old and owned by Vincente, who named the house in honour of his grandfather’s trade. There’s a pool, a portico overhung with fruit trees and a shaded garden. For many farmers, running hotels like these is now more profitable than agriculture. ‘We have olives, almonds, oranges,’ explains Vincente. ‘You used to make money from the fruits, but not now – a sack of almonds will fetch just five cents.’
Though many landowners are making this move into tourism, there are still some islanders committed to farming as an alternative. One such person is Ronnie Anderson, who runs a smallholding of 80 hectares on which he rears native Ibizan black pigs and sheep. He’s more or less single-handedly pulled the rare pig breed back from extinction, and now holds the island’s only organic meat licence.
‘These animals are essential to the understanding of the history of the island,’ he says. ‘Thirty years ago Ibiza was a net exporter of food, but now we import 95 per cent of what’s needed. The island has a certain saturation point and I’m sure we’re nearing it. Seven million people visit the island every year, that’s an awful lot of people using an awful lot of resources.’
Though Ibiza is an island of two unequal segments, Anderson sees change in the air. ‘There is mass tourism, where people sit on a sunlounger, then fly home on Ryanair, and who never, ever, venture into what we call the campo. But there is also a farming economy which is growing exponentially. It’s experiencing a huge re-growth.
‘The first generation skipped the countryside and went to work in bars, hotels or drive taxis. Their children have found that farming is no longer associated with poverty, that there is money to be made if it’s done properly, sustainably. You see part-time taxi drivers spending three hours on their fields a day, farming family land that hasn’t been farmed for decades.’
For those sticking with tourism, Benbeniste believes that the trade could become more sustainable. She points to one glaring solution. ‘We have a big yellow thing in the sky,’ she says with a laugh, ‘it gives us 300 days of sunshine. You don’t have to cover the whole island in solar panels.’ To be more precise, Ibiza FOE’s Morgan reckons solar farms would need to cover just two per cent of Ibiza in order for the country to run on it.
‘Ibiza could be totally running on renewable energy,’ she says. ‘If that happened, then other things would fall into place. Water would be re-used, it’s not difficult to do and that would be helpful for farmers. If there was more agrotourism in place that would be a good image to present to the world. We are fighting against the grain, but then we always have done.’
On my last morning on the island, I meet with Toby Clarke, who runs a local company, Walking Ibiza. Clarke, born on the island to British parents, nods as I outline how my ignorance about Ibiza’s environment has turned into enlightenment. ‘I feel blessed to live here,’ he says. ‘There are certain parts of the island where you can walk and not see a house. There are so many beautiful little places.
‘Ibiza has had the most amazing history. Every civilisation you can think of has had a go at Ibiza. People say Ibiza is ruined, but it is absolutely not. It’s a question of trust. If you trust in Ibiza, it gives you that trust back.’
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