The price of fun and games in Ibiza

If we were to play a game of associations and I gave you the word ¨Ibiza¨ it´d probably immediately lead you to thinking about words like ¨party¨ and ¨chill out¨. I´d be the same, particularly if I rewind some 30 years and bring back those raving and memorable five days we happy eighties adolescents spent in the island, celebrating the end of high school. Even without  recalling the parties and the fun, I´d be hard pressed to establish an immediate link between the rustic beauty and wild party environment of this fine island  with the words ¨conservation¨and ¨biodiversity¨.

But let me tell you why Ibiza is more than sand and fun.

On the 4th of December 1999, Ibiza officially joined UNESCO´s World Heritage collection, an award that recognised the importance the biodiversity and culture of the island have played in the history of the Mediterranean sea and its people.  A number of Ibiza´s sites were included in the UNESCO World Heritage list like:

The acropolis of Dalt Vila (the old town of Eivissa), a treasure of all the cultures that have inhabited the island, from the very first settlers to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors, up to the Christian conquest led by the King of Aragón in the 13th century.

The underwater posidonia meadows, source of the rich marine biodiversity of the Pitiusas Islands. Posidonia are the source of the beauty and transparency of the waters of the Pitiusan Sea and as such the great biodiversity in the waters of Ibiza and Formentera directly depend on their strength and vitality:

The Phoenician settlement of Sa Caleta:

The Punic necropolis Puig des Molins, which contain the vestiges of the first settlements on the islands:

and Las Salinas, in the southern tip of the island, where human-induced activity has formed wetland areas of great beauty and ecological interest:

The threats

This mediterranean island paradise, however, is now paying the consequences of a massive influx of raging tourists and the rapid growth of urbanised areas over the last few decades. The rapid transition from a farming economy capable of comfortably feeding over 100,000 residents to one that relies mainly on the arrival of more than 2 million tourists annually has had a tremendous impact on the island’s environment.

This massive flow of tourists in a short period of time exceeds the capacity of the island’s environment, and has generated a huge demand for land, water and energy, while producing an increasing volume of wastes.

Red Bull Flugtag Ibiza

Water shortage and pollution

With only an average of 46 days of rain each year and  the single river in Ibiza having ceased to flow long ago, the island is far from fresh water rich. Historically, residents have found various ways to compensate for the perpetual lack of water, like building houses with water catchment facilities incorporated into the ground and relying on the use of desalination plants. Water conservation has always been an integral part of their lives.

However, the escalating water demand from mass tourism in the last decades has led to depleted and polluted aquifers and to a growing dependency on desalination plants, that contaminate coastal waters and contribute strongly to Ibiza’s soaring energy demand.

Endangered biodiversity

Most of Ibiza’s important habitats are coastal or marine areas, threatened by mass construction and other activities connected to mass tourism.  Protection programs have not succeeded in natural parks like Ses Salines Park and marine habitats of key international importance like the Posidonia meadows  are currently threatened by navigation and by infrastructure projects.

Increased energy use and waste generation

Energy consumption in Ibiza has risen almost 70% over the last decade. The increased demand for transport along the 571 km 2 of the island has translated into higher  fuel usage and consequent pollution of the environment.  Air traffic has become a main concern and will continue to be a priority for environmentalists as the plans to enlarge the existing airport to expand its capacity are put into action.

A project to expand the facilities of the existing port in the city of Ibiza was also approved in 2009 by the Spanish government even at the serious risk of damaging the World Heritage Posidonia meadows. A UNESCO mission that assessed the potential impact of this development concluded that the scale of the project is “beyond acceptable limits” and recommended “to re-examine alternative options for port development and select those which are more rational and involving limited expansion”.

In the meantime, alternative forms of energy like solar energy remain almost untapped.

Sewage plants are also a serious problem. During the tourist season the existing facilities cannot cope with sewage discharge, which ends up being dumped into the sea.

As expected, the volume of household waste is also increasing. Selective collection and recycling currently represents a small fraction of total waste produced (some 6.6% and 5.4% in 2008). A new separation facility is expected to cut by half the amount of rubbish dumped in the landfill once it comes into operation, but further measures are required to encourage waste reduction and recycling, and to improve collection services.

The Greenheart Travel’s volunteer program

If Ibiza is in your bucket list but don´t want to be part of the crowds that contribute to the issues we have discussed above, then perhaps the Greenheart travel´s volunteer program is for you. You can visit their website to obtain more information but this unique travel group gathers dedicated activists concerned about the environmental damage heavy tourism has on the island and sends them on their way to La casita verde. Volunteers spend a minimum of two weeks in this working farm supporting Greenheart projects in ecological research, beach cleaning and environmental education programs.

The project is open from March 15 through September 15 and prices vary from $990 for two weeks to $1,930 for 6 weeks and include:

Accommodation in rustic on-site housing
3 vegetarian meals per day
Emergency medical insurance for the duration of your program
Arrival transfer service from Ibiza airport
Project supervisor and emergency staff available 24/7
Orientation pre-departure and upon arrival

Volunteer Activities:

Maintain and improve the farm facilities
Install alternative energy systems
Promote environmental awareness among visitors
Cook for visiting groups
Permaculture farming
Assist with Sunday community visits/meals

If the program is not for you but you still want to visit the island, please be a wise and sympathetic traveller and help us retain the cultural and environmental richness of this Mediterranean paradise.




Is Tuscany really all that green?

The Tuscan countryside is the type of landscape most people´s dreams are made of. Undulating green hills,  century-old towers and narrow cobblestone paved villages,  sunflower fields, traditional cuisine –  ingredients that have made Tuscany the prestigious tourist destination that has been since the late nineteenth century.

Many tourists today, in selecting their holiday location, add another factor to the equation, a factor that a decade ago was highly neglected – the environment. This is certainly good news but the sad truth is that the majority of travellers are not aware of the impact their very presence has on the chosen destination. If we continue exposing our planet to the effects of mass tourism and to the effects of a holiday-maker that bear no respect for the local ecosystem most destinations will not be able to sustain such pressures.

Italy presents some clear examples of how  intrusive tourism can negatively affect a destination, Venice being the most obvious of all. In this world heritage site, the effects of ¨touristification¨ are now nearly irreversible with approximately 20 million annual arrivals having to be supported by a local population of  60,000 people.  As Henry James complained already more than a century ago: “though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” For decades, conservationists have warned about the impact of mass tourism in the city. Apart from the obvious environmental effects like water pollution, excessive wastage, destruction of artistic heritage, tourists in large numbers are also driving up real estate prices as palazzi get bought up and converted into tourist accommodation. Native Venetians are driven to the mainland and the city has become a museum that caters to every tourist´s whims.

San Gimignano, in Tuscany, is another example – a  stunningly well-preserved walled medieval town that is home to only 7,000 residents now having to cater for 3 million visitors each year.

If efforts to create a sustainable tourist industry are to be successful, there needs to be a two-way street, particularly in high-tourist traffic areas like Italy.  Tourists need to learn to be as non-intrussive as possible, yes, that´s a given, and education plays a crucial role here. But local entities have to commit to support and implement environmental practices as well. Investigative journalism has revealed that most of the recyclable items and trash in Rome, for example, ended up in the same place. Sewage treatment plants have only begun to spring up around Milan in the past decade or so – previously, it simply was flushed into the river Po. There needs to be serious regulations put in place that prevent greenwashing, a practice initially coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay regarding the hotel industry’s practice of placing placards in each room promoting reuse of towels ostensibly to “save the environment.” As he pointed out,  hotels invested more money in promoting their green label rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices.

That aside, the tourism industry in Italy has invested a significant effort to protect the resources of a country where visitor spending accounts for a whole lot of the nation’s income. Rural Tuscany is regularly credited with leading the charge for sustainable tourism and many hotels in Florence, Siena, and other Tuscan cities, as well as higher-end agriturismi in the countryside, have implemented standard green practices. Some properties have used only natural materials in the restoration, others have chosen sustainable power to run the house, some recycle rain water, others have chosen building materials and methods that reduce power usage in winter like floor heating. Some owners keep an organic garden at the house (with all that entails, like avoiding transportation and petrol costs), others use strictly natural cleaning products on the premises. But generally, most of them comply with standard green practices like reusing towels and bed sheets, installing low-flow toilets, providing guest room recycler baskets/bins for newspaper, white paper, glass products, aluminum cans, cardboard, and plastics and using earth-friendly detergents.  The food offered in most restaurants in central Italy generally comes directly from local farms thus sparing you from food additives and other added unpleasantness. Towns and provinces have been pushing for more intercity cycling paths to connect tourist sites.

More could certainly be done to protect this privileged part of the world. For instance, there is no doubt that most travelling families with luggage will need a car to get around the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside – but to get a perspective of the effect their movement will have on the region, think about the 14 million tourists that visit Tuscany every year, divide that number by an average of four passengers for cars and you have nearly four times more the number of cars on the roads of Tuscany. If using public transport is not  an option for you and your family, there are other things you can do like reusing towels, cycling, discarding trash and recyclables in the appropriate white and blue bins around the region, and eating locally grown produce. And don’t shy away from Central Italy’s tap water; it’s very good.

One thing seems to be true though – finding information on green agriturismi is not an easy task. You can start with booking sites like  and but you´d have to trust their green claims. I would recommend you visit Pure and Authentic Holiday Rentals as the writers spent a few months travelling around Italy meeting Italian owners of holiday accommodation who are sensitive to ecology. And once you have the chance to get there, remember to be a sympathetic tourist and respect the natural and cultural treasure that is Tuscany.