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 Iran back in the tourist map?

Ben Affleck reminded us yesterday that Iran exists with the dramatisation of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive American diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran.

The Canadians are not happy nor are the Iranians. The former have been stripped of the chance to tell and boast about a seriously good story, the latter, well, the whole world is reminded once again who the bad guys are.

Iran has not been getting any good press for decades now. Deservedly so? I really don´t want to make that judgement right now. What I want, instead, is to leave politics, religion and extremism behind (as if one could, I hear you saying…) and have a fair look at a country renown for the hospitality of its people, a country rich in history and tradition,  stunningly beautiful women and centuries old treasures.

Iran´s growing tourism industry

The U.N. World Tourism Organisation reported that  from 2004 to 2010, the annual increase in tourists visiting foreign countries was 3.2 percent. Iran, on the other hand, presented  a growing trend with figures over the same period showing tourism in this country grew at a much faster clip — 12.7 percent. The number of foreign tourists in Iran reached 3 million in 2011, contributing more than $2 billion to the national economy, according to Iranian data. Tour operators in Iran confirm the number sore last year.

But who are these foreign visitors? Most of us will probably be hard pressed to find someone amongst our circle of friends who had visited Iran. The restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities deter most Western tourists who prefer destinations where alcohol is easily accessible and women can enjoy the sun without having to worry about Islamic modesty. However, a small share of tourists to the country (approximately 10% of the total number of visitors) are attracted by the country’s  seemingly countless ancient sites and its reputation for hospitality and, find their way into Iran from North America (more than 1,000 Americans visited Iran as tourists last year, according to the Iranian Tour Operators Association) and the European Union including Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Belgium, and China.

Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organisation has plans to further expand tourism in the areas of eco tourism, coastlines, restoration of historical relics, handicraft township and health tourism, particularly in the country´s  most popular tourist destinations of Esfahan, Mashhad, Qom, Persepolis and Shiraz.  Besides, to further the growth in this industry and to encourage domestic and foreign direct investment in this sector, the 50 per cent tax exemption previously granted to tourism enterprises has been extended to include five-star hotels.

If you are one of those inclined to explore the unexplored, I suggest you browse Irpedia, one of Iran´s most complete resources for foreign travellers. I was once tempted, many, many years ago, when I was only 19, to visit this incredible place, but had a change of heart after visiting the Iranian embassy in Madrid, and had to undergo a fairly intimidating interrogation by what seemed to be a group of very intimidating men. I thought I´d leave Iran for a next time. Perhaps the time is approaching…

Esfehan – 33 pol
Fateme Masumeh shrine and Feiziyah madrasa, Qom
Fatimah al-Ma’sūmah in Qom, Iran
Arg-e Bam , Iran (Citadel of Bam, Unesco world heritage)
Masjed-e Vakil, Shiraz
Persepolis 7- Shiraz
Esfahan market
Hamhen, Pirzan Kolun and Mehrchal peaks from Sarakchal mountains
Imam Reza, Masshad, Iran
Sabalan volcano, Northwestern Iran