Ibiza and British Tourism: A Short History

As the UK sees an outpouring of patriotism for the platinum jubilee now is as good a time as any for a short history of Ibiza’s relationship with British tourism.

After the bitter Spanish civil war and extreme poverty Ibiza finally woke up to find that its white sandy beaches, 300 days of sunshine per year, liberal attitude and cheap living costs was a magic formula for an economic miracle and the British (along with other sun-starved north European tourists) were at the centre.

Like most relationships it had a strong start, the courting and heavy petting came in the 60’s and 70’s when mass tourism found its way to the island. While the Germans invaded Mallorca (pardon the expression) British tour operators such as Thomson Holidays started bringing over plane loads of eager holidaymakers to newly built hotels while their reps happily sold sangria filled, cheesy excursions to travellers waving fistfuls of travellers cheques.

The package holiday revolution had begun. Most Brits went home happy clutching a stuffed donkey, a bullfighting poster and sunburn, it’s cliched but thanks to my late parents I’m talking from personal experience. That was the 70’s for you.

For 2 countries only a thousand miles apart geographically the culture differences were huge but the pay off for both sides was immense. British tourists lapping up the the sun, sea and sangria while local businesses prospered with plenty of pesetas. British entrepreneurs started to settle on the island, young ladies met future husbands.

The British package holiday or ‘square deal’ to Ibiza was a simple formula that continued to evolve but like most relationships there were some bumpy times ahead. In the late 80’s Ibiza became the victim of its own success. All night opening hours and cheap drinks led to excessive behaviour which the UK tabloid press jumped all over framing a narrative of drink and drug excess. In truth it wasn’t a million miles away from reality due to Ibiza’s liberal attitude that was in stark contrast to the starched shirt, stiff upper lip way of life of Thatchers Britain trying desperately to clamp down on the blossoming rave culture.

Suddenly the ‘drunken Brit abroad’ went from hero to zero. Local Ibiza businesses were earning too much to care but it still wasn’t prepared for the shitstorm that followed and the repercussions to its reputation that still rumble on to this day.

In the mid 90’s the Island exploded. Edgy clubs became accesible not to just the cool kids but to a core British audience – Manumission at Privilege became the biggest club night in the world with it’s infamous sex show broadcast weekly on ‘Ibiza Uncovered’ – the ground breaking Sky TV series. It brought Ibiza directly to British living rooms destroying plenty of myths along the way but creating a boom in demand especially from a young British audience desperate to be part of the story. Ibiza had landed on the world stage but mainstream had its price and it’s reputation suffered a little but it would bounce back.

As a new Millenium was ushered in, Ibiza and the world had no idea that firstly the internet and then social media was about the change the game. Within a decade the tourism business model that had existed for nearly 40 years was to become extinct as the traditional 7, 10 and 14 night ‘package’ holiday became a thing of the past. It was now all about short breaks and weekend fun in the sun.

British short haul tour operators began to disappear, no more plastic trays with processed food and holidays reps with clipboards, low cost airlines Ryanair and easyJet became the new ‘no frills’ public transport to the sun with daily flights from nearly every UK airport. Hotels were now bookable online, who needed a tour operator any more? The opening up of the skies saw record numbers of Brits flowing into Ibiza airport, the upward trajectory of an island finally unshackled was limitless or so we thought until a Chinese bat threw a very large spanner into the works.

Suddenly the British market was taken away from Ibiza by a clueless British government that went from green to amber to red in little over 2 weeks whilst instilling a fear of travelling. Ibiza without Brits was like fish without chips, bread without butter, spotted dick without custard (you get the idea). Some welcomed the change of dynamic but some businesses didn’t even open – the simple economics has been undisputed for decades – nobody spends money like Brits abroad. Self survival kicked in and many critics of British tourism were soon pining for their return. Nobody denies that the relationship between residents and tourists can be fractious but this 2 year period taught us to be careful for what you wish for. The British market doesn’t always cover itself in glory but no relationship is ever perfect.

Summer 2022 has started like a runaway train, fuelled by a pent up demand for fun in the sun that’s been lacking for 2 long years. It’s back to business as usual but with more positivity than ever before. Over the last few years the White Isle has seen unprecedented investment in its hotel infrastructure and food and beverage sector. There’s more options than ever which can only be good for the consumer. Ibiza is right at the top of its game. More connectivity than ever before, world class venues, hostelry and cuisine offering a product and service like never before and right in the very middle of all this are the British tourists who come here in their hundreds of thousands every summer.

The relationship between Ibiza and British tourism goes back over 4 generations and is ingrained in the identity of the Island. The journey hasn’t always been easy but the friendships and the shared history together can never be forgotten or devalued. There will be challenges ahead – there always is, but coming out of it’s darkest hour the future has never been so bright.

Author: Martin Makepeace

Englishman living and working in Ibiza since 1991. Entrepreneur with a passion for villas, boats, sunsets and San Antonio. Read my blogs, listen to my podcasts and catch me on Radio One Mallorca every Tuesday morning.

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