The tourist trap

Sprawling villas threaten to engulf the remains of Ibicenco identity

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“There are houses everywhere!” My friend’s face is glued to the car window, as we drive along the main road on the northern side of the island. I turn right. A secondary road strings the plots on the east-facing valley together. The ploughed parcels expose the bright sienna colour of the swirled soil. Perfect rows of leafless almond trees fill the land. It is early January, and some brave flowers are blooming on the empty branches, refreshing the dusty palette. 

Bon dia!” She waves enthusiastically at an old man in electric blue overalls pruning the roadside vines. Their long, entangled branches are outgrowing the boundaries of the land, ferociously poking the tarmac as if to say: “Don’t you dare come any closer.”

Beyond them, the countryside in Ibiza is sprinkled with houses almost everywhere, sitting on small plots of land. Only one-third of the island’s total residents—151,827 in 2020—live in Ibiza town today. Yet whilst the phenomenon of tourism emphasised this landscape, it did not cause it. Before tourism kicked off in the 1960s, Ibicencos already lived scattered in the countryside.

From the Phoenicians to the Romans, the Arabs and the Catalans and civilisations from all over southern Europeincluding pirateshad a taste for the island, strategically placed within the commercial sailing routes of the western Mediterranean. Despite many occupations—from the first populations arriving in 2100BC to the Catalan Reconquesta (“Reconquest”) in AD1235—the configuration of Ibiza hardly changed. Vila, founded by the Phoenicians in the seventh century BC, remained the only urban area, housing the government in today’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Dalt Vila. Yet beyond the 16th-century walls that sealed off the medieval city, settlements were dispersed. The country and the city were two radically different worlds, and hardly ever interacted. 

Until the 20th century, farmers in Ibiza lived a self-sufficient, mostly remote life. Comfortable with their land and traditions, most of the islanders resisted urbanity. Their reasons are unclear: some argue that the ever-present fear of pillaging pirates made urban agglomerations dangerous. Others remark upon the contrast with the two larger, neighbouring Balearic islands. In Mallorca and Menorca, rich, feudal lords owned almost all land, which was cultivated by peasants at their service. In Ibiza, on the other hand, individual landowners used the majority of plots for self-consumption. With land as their only inheritance, children were forced to divide it up into smaller and smaller parcels. 

The land that Ibicenco farmers lived on became the main definition of their identity: it was the land that fed them, and their only property—the one thing that remained, generation after generation. When tourism arrived in the 1960s, this changed radically.

“The success of tourism was closely connected to the island’s most profitable primary sector,” says Joan Carles Cirer. The renowned Ibicenco economist has studied the island’s transition to a tourism-based society. “In the late 19th century, exports of almonds and carob beans were skyrocketing.” Almonds are still widely present in the island’s countryside and are the base ingredient of several local products.

In the 1930s, local traders started investing their growing profits in tourism, and eminent Europeans including Walter Benjamin began to holiday on the island. But in 1936, civil war broke out in Spain, turning the country and its islands into a battlefield between republicans and nationalists. Ibiza struggled with a sinking economy, ushering in a period known as es anys de sa fam (“the hunger years”). In the collective memory of the oldest living generation of Ibicencos, the post-war period was associated with extreme poverty. This is the generation of my grandparents—that which eventually exchanged farming for souvenir shops. 

In the late 1950s, following a timid liberalisation of the Spanish economy, visitors started returning to the island. Many Europeans were looking for a place to escape the gloominess of post-war cities and found Ibiza a perfect retreat. The construction of the airport in 1959 gave the industry a further boost.

“We stopped farming because tourism seemed a better employment opportunity,” says Pep Costa, 92. He started working in tourism in the 1970s, together with his wife. Margalida Serra, 89, sewed adlib clothing—traditional garments made by hand using natural fabric and Ibicenco laces. Pep worked at one of the first two souvenir shops in the notorious resort of Platja d’en Bossa. “We sold our land and bought the souvenir shop in 1981,” he says.  

As tourism kicked in, rural plots and country houses became places for tourists to stay. “The island was extremely in vogue,” says Monica Gerlach, a Dutch language teacher who arrived in Ibiza in 1965. “People from all over Europe looked for a place to enjoy and liberate themselves. Ibiza had always had a special energy, and its openness made us foreigners feel welcome.” Towards the end of the 1960s, counterculture rebels were landing in a place that looked like a piece of the past—and they were bringing acid. The myth of Ibiza, the land of freedom, fun and peace, was born. 

During those years, the tourism industry was a welcome and widely accessible source of income. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, many Ibicencos combined work in the fields and the tourism industry. They could not conceive of abandoning their land. But tourism soon proved to be a dazzling opportunity. Between 1960 and 1974 the number of visitors multiplied by 20, reaching half a million. Pachá Ibiza, the world-famous nightclub, was founded in 1973. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, putting an end to a fascist, at times protectionist dictatorship. By the time Spain joined the European Economic Community in 1986, the Ibicenco countryside was being developed as if it were urban land. The real estate sector boomed, and the Spanish economy progressively opened up to foreign investment. 

As the myth of a hippie, free Ibiza stepped aside, a new one was born: the Ibiza brand, mostly defined by peaks in real estate value, the trading of villas, non-stop partying and a rise in the overall cost of living on the island. Owning property in Ibiza has become an exclusive, unaffordable privilege. Yet to those of us who, like myself, grew up there, the “luxury tag” feels like an imposition on a land that has much more to do with roots and a rural lifestyle.

The island’s urbanisation has gone hand in hand with the loss of the Ibicenco traditions. “Investors are here for the money,” says Neus Escandell, a Professor of Tourism at Universitat de les Illes Balears. “They don’t care about our customs, our people or our land. All they care about is profit.”

The tourist economy has transformed the face of the island—from the slow but steady pressure of investors preying on a prized coastal plot, to an abandoned field of carob trees now overrun by wild vegetation, or even an old barn illegally transformed into a vacation rental for €2,000 per week. It is a particular type of gentrification. In the classic definition of the word, an urban area changes its character as a consequence of wealthier people moving in, improving housing and attracting new businesses, causing the cost of living to rise and often displacing local inhabitants in the process. This cannot explain the changes in Ibiza’s countryside. These are largely due to the implementation of touristic uses on arable land, where visitors and temporary inhabitants often take more than they give back.

“I have lived in a poor Ibiza, where there were only 10 doctors. We cannot forget that tourism has improved our living conditions,” explains Escandell. “But tourism is a right, and it should be protected. Our exceptional resources should be protected—beaches, land, traditions. We simply cannot afford to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. But if we have to wait for investment funds to protect the goose—well, we’re screwed.”

The meaning of Ibicenco land today is unclear yet politicised. If for some, it is a financial asset, for others it is rather a symbol of a long gone, some would say, better, way of life. 

The defence of the Ibicenco rural imagination is often a reaction to land development. Nostalgic or furious posts on social media, critical articles in the press, local festivities and occasional demonstrations fiercely respond to what they perceive to be an alarming dilution of the local identity.

“What remains of Ibicenco rural traditions is a folkloric vision of agriculture—a landscape,” says Salvador Roig, an agricultural engineer working on the island and abroad. This vision is suffocating agriculture.

Romanticising the countryside usually means simplifying the traditions associated with farming, which require hard work and dedication. “It is certainly not enough to just plough the land once a year,” explains Vicent Marí Palermet. “That’s just a leftover of a much larger list of duties.” Marí is widely considered an expert on Ibicenco traditions. When I ask him what can be done to preserve them, his answer is clear: “Educate. We must teach the young how our landscape works. Soon the last generation of majorals—farmers that worked the land of others—will die. There is not much time left to save this knowledge.”

As a result, more and more locals are now feeling the “call of the land.” According to Jaume Rovira, director of the IB3 TV programme about Balearic rural life Uep! Com Anam?, this phenomenon is widespread among “farming’s lost generation,” those aged roughly between 30 and 50. “Their grandparents were farmers, their parents worked in tourism, and they are now returning to the land—in most cases as a reaction to the instability of the job market.”

They often bring with them a renewed approach—a reinterpretation of the traditions, a push for local varieties of vegetables and cereals and the use of social media to portray a reality that hardly ever makes the news. “The success of agricultural cooperatives or collectively-owned oil presses are examples of this shift,” explains Mariano Tur, President of the Executive Board for the Protected Geographical Identification Oli d’Eivissa (“Olive oil from Ibiza”). “It won’t be immediately profitable, but we see an increasing demand for local produce.”

The shift, though small, is noticeable even to the European Union. Its new common agricultural policy recognises that the Balearic Islands’ insularity poses a challenge for agriculture and so provides subsidies.

“The pandemic was a blow,” says Roig, “and you need that to shake up a system.” Despite the rise of agricultural land in use, a 22% increase in sustainable farming plots from 2020 to 2021, Covid-19 has done little to weaken the well-established Ibiza brand. According to Sotheby’s International Chief Operating Officer in Ibiza, Barbara Caprara, the total sales of rural land on the island during the past 18 months amount to one of the highest numbers in the last decade.

How can we save what is left of our traditional way of life from disappearing under the weight of the Ibiza brand? “Rural culture and identity have to be on display and within everyone’s reach,” explains Roig. “We need people to expose a living version of these traditions. When I invite a client for lunch, I like to bring out the flaüta and tambor, our traditional instruments, and eat our local food.”

I park the car in a vacant lot in Forada. It is a sunny Saturday morning, and the market is full: tomatoes, potatoes, fresh fruit, herbs and seeds fill the farmers’ stands, artisans showcase the result of their lockdown labours, and the bar is teeming with people. A couple of tourists wander around, smelling homemade honey and olive oil. As my friend opens the door, the delicious smell of sobrassada torrada invades the car. It brings back childhood memories of the traditional cured meat—made with minced pork, salt, pepper and paprika—hanging in rows in my grandmother’s larder, just like from this food stand in Forada today.

Nuria Ribas Costa's motivation

Illustration by

Hannah Lock