Ibiza locals describe bittersweet feelings as tourist numbers plummet

On the largely-empty beach at Figueretas on Ibiza, social distancing isn't hard to do. Here, bar terraces are sparsely populated and the shutters of apartments overlooking them are mostly closed.

Ibiza locals describe bittersweet feelings as tourist numbers plummet
A nightclub bus in an empty lot. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

With Spanish health authorities struggling to contain rising coronavirus infections, this island fears its tourist season may have been dealt a final blow following Britain's decision to quarantine all arrivals from Spain.

But both the tourists who are here and the locals are enjoying a period of unprecedented calm in Ibiza — one of the Balearic Islands — which is normally overrun by clubbers and DJs from across the globe.

“The impact has been terrible. The pandemic has battered the local economy for one simple reason: 90 percent of the island's GDP comes from tourism,” said Vicent Torres, head of the island's governing council.

In mid-June, the Balearic Islands had high hopes of making the most of the summer when the archipelago welcomed the first foreign tourists allowed into Spain after the lockdown as part of a pilot project with Germany.

And by July, the recovery was well under way, “better than we had expected,” said Iago Negueruela, head of tourism for the Balearic Isles' regional government.

But Britain's announcement on July 25 that it would impose quarantine on anyone arriving from Spain, given the increase in cases, has threatened to wipe out the recovery.

And the irony is that the Balearic Islands have seen very few cases of infection.

READ MORE: How the UK's new quarantine rules are impacting travel to Spain


Flurry of cancellations

The effect was immediate.

“From the very first day, customers were calling to cancel their reservations,” said Lucas Prats, manager of a four-star hotel in the centre of Ibiza town.

“For those who have to work (when they go back to the UK), it's a problem,” he acknowledged.

“It has been a major blow,” admitted Torres, pointing out that British tourism accounts for about 30 percent of the island's visitors.

“It is going to very difficult to come back from this because the British tourists had just started arriving and we were confident this would get the season going. But this decision has shattered all our expectations.”

Famed for its clubbing culture and nightlife, Ibiza must also contend with the closure of its iconic dance clubs, some of the most popular in the world, but shuttered to slow the spread of the virus.

The Spanish government, which has denounced the British move as unfair, fought hard to obtain an exemption for travellers returning from the Balearic or Canary Islands.

But London refused. If such an exemption “is not agreed quickly, some businesses and hotels will close down and it will be very difficult for them to open again,” said Torres.

Louis Morgan, 23, who is visiting from Wales for a few weeks, thinks that a quarantine requirement for those coming from the Balearics “seems unreasonable”.

And his girlfriend Milly Davies, 22, agreed.

“The infection rate is way lower here,” she said.

Enjoying the peace 

Although the island's towns and beaches are normally crowded, neither the tourists nor the locals are unhappy about the atmosphere of unprecedented calm.

“It's quite nice, actually. We were walking down the streets and it was quieter,” said Davies, after an evening stroll through Ibiza town.

“There are fewer tourists, parties, perhaps more families.. you can feel the difference in the traffic when you're going to the beach with the children, it's quite noticeable,” said Swiss national Santi Soto, 47, who regularly visits with her husband and two boys.

For taxi driver Angel Torres, the crisis has given the islanders a rare moment of peace.

“You can hear people saying 'I wish it would stay like this forever' because there's no overcrowding on the beaches nor in restaurants, nor on the roads,” said the 47-year-old, sitting inside his taxi.

“So you can enjoy the island much more than in other years even if it's a major economic blow.” Juan Jose Roig who lives in the highest part of the town, said he's happy to be able to hear the cicadas around his house.

“We have the island to ourselves, and we're enjoying it like we did 30 years ago,” the 53-year-old electrician told AFP.

“There has to be a half-way point where people can eat and work well, while also having space.

“They will have to rethink the tourist model a bit, it's unavoidable.”

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.