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Ibiza's Empty Dance Floors & Secret Parties: In Europe's Clubbing Capitol, The Summer That Wasn't

A pandemic and a crackdown on clubbing tourism sends parties into the hills, but deep-pocketed clubs are looking to bounce back in 2021.

IBIZA — It’s 1 p.m. on Sunday in early October in the beach area known as Playa D’en Bossa. The front of superclub Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel is boarded up, its LED screens blank and lifeless. In other summer closing weekends, clubbers would be frolicking in the club’s oversized pool as the world’s top dance DJs and Latin music stars command the open-air stage. Not on this afternoon.

Across the street the scene is no different. The entrance to Ushuaïa’s sister club, Hï, is barren, the club’s sign wrapped in plastic to protect it from the elements. A couple teach their young son to ride his bike in the deserted parking lot, while a solitary can rattles down the road. It’s eerily quiet, apart from the occasional car passing by.

“Everything was ready, but unfortunately we couldn’t open,” says José Luis Benitez, director of institutional relations at Palladium Hotel Group, which owns Ushuaïa and Hï. “It was decided even before the government prohibited it, because the priority was the health of workers and customers, in addition to safeguarding the Ibiza brand.”

The coronavirus pandemic paralyzed global nightlife in Ibiza this year. And for the first time since the island became notorious as a dance music and techno-filled party island in the 1980s -- ushering in DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox -- Ibiza experienced a “year off.”

From Oct. 2 to 4 -- the closing weekend of what is normally an unrelenting five-month summer season -- Ibiza felt like a deserted island. Billboards from 2019 were still up, including a few featuring Erick Morillo, the Ibiza legend who died in September. Ticket outlets, or “disco points,” had closed their doors and covered their windows. Holidays apartments, like the infamous Jet Holidays on Bora Bora Beach, were completely empty. Just a handful of restaurants were open.

Though the world-famous clubs lie dormant for now, they made it through to the end of the season without having to declare insolvency. But can they survive if next season is cancelled?

The clubs managed to avoid massive layoffs mainly thanks to the Spanish government’s furlough scheme (ERTE), which has provided financial support to their staff. The scheme was recently extended through January 2021. Since the pandemic struck in March, two months before Ibiza’s season was due to start, clubs were operating with just their core staff -- seasonal employees had not yet been hired. “If it had happened in the middle of summer, when we’d have had 100 staff, it would have been an absolute nightmare,” says Niall Dempsey, the COO at Eden Ibiza, which has four full-time employees.

It also helped that most of Ibiza’s club owners own the buildings that house their venues, so when they’re closed, they don’t have to worry about paying rent. Basic operational costs are comfortably covered with a skeleton team. With deep pockets, they’re able to weather the current storm -- for this season, at least.

Tasya Menaker
The front of Ibiza superclub Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel is boarded up for the season

Two of Ibiza’s biggest clubs, Ushuaïa and Hï, are part of Palladium Hotel Group, which is controlled by the family of billionaire Spanish politician Abel Matutes. Palladium, which owns 50 hotels in six countries and controls a large chunk of prime Ibiza real estate, also counts Hard Rock Hotel among its properties.

Pacha Group is owned by Trilantic Capital Partners, a private equity firm with €1.5 billion under management. Privilege, the world’s biggest club, with a 10,000-person capacity, is co-owned by Matutes and businessman Jose Maria Etxaniz, while Amnesia’s owner, Martin Ferrer, was arrested in 2016 on charges of money laundering and tax evasion when police reportedly found €2 million in cash hidden in the club. Eden is owned by Michael van de Kuit, a multi-millionaire Dutch real estate investor who acquired the club for $14 million in 2013.

“Anybody who owns an Ibiza club is not poor,” Niall says. “We can adjust everything and put any 2020 costs into next year. Can we put them two or three years away? I don’t know, but if we have to, we’ll just have to adapt and change.”

What happens to the rest of the island’s seasonal businesses is more of a concern. On a drive through the island, at least 80% of businesses in the most popular tourist hubs appeared to be shuttered.

It’s a slightly different story at Pikes, a hotel located a mile outside of San Antonio on the west side of the island. Founded by the late Tony Pike in 1978, its infamous pool area was used to film Wham!’s classic pop hit “Club Tropicana.” The sprawling hotel-cum-restaurant-cum-party venue is owned by the Ibiza Rocks Group, which also runs the Ibiza Rocks hotel where Stormzy, Craig David, MK and Rudimental have hosted pool parties.

“We didn’t have any choice,” says Dawn Hindle, the creative director at Ibiza Rocks. “If we hadn't opened, we would have gone bust.”

Pikes, with 25 rooms, and Ibiza Rocks with 363, both scaled down their operations to mitigate the impact of reduced tourism in 2020. The Freddie Mercury room and other indoor spaces were out-of-bounds, but outdoor terrace spaces and the pool were open during the day and at night. “If you average it out, we’ve probably had about 40% occupancy at the hotel compared with last year,” Hindle says.

Ibiza’s heavy reliance on tourists from the U.K. -- the worst-hit country in Europe from the pandemic -- severely impacted the island’s summer season. Between January and September 2019, 871,000 Brits visited Ibiza, accounting for about 24% of all tourists. After the U.K. government reintroduced a 14-day quarantine period in late July for anyone returning from Spain, bookings at Pikes dipped 50% in August compared to July.

At the same time, Spanish authorities seemed keen to ban dancing as a way to limit the spread of the virus. In June, the Balearic government instructed venues to use dance floors as extra space for tables. “At one point it felt like they were trying to restrict dance music tourism,” says Neil Evans, artistic director at Amnesia. The government has banned party boats, which can no longer serve food or alcohol, and Ibiza is also experiencing a 10 p.m. curfew on businesses in Ibiza Town and San Antonio.

Partiers Head For Forests and Private Villas

Amnesia made headlines in June when it hosted an illegal gathering. Evans says it was easy to socially distance with 150 people in the 7,000-capacity club. The party went on through the night, ending at 7 a.m., when the police arrived.

With clubs closed down, club tourists have thrown parties in private villas up in the hills of the island, some with basements that lend themselves to clandestine gatherings. Parties are also happening outdoors in forests and more secluded residential properties.

While the clubs are still hedging their bets on reopening next year, some members of the island’s establishment have pushed authorities to change the longer-term culture of Ibiza by cracking down on clubbing tourism. Binge-drinking culture combined with mass tourism have become increasingly intolerable to some islanders, and the local government has been trying to remodel the island as a family-friendly tourist destination. Cheap, alcohol-fueled holidays may have met their demise.

Even before the pandemic took hold, authorities in January enacted a ban on pub crawls and happy hours in San Antonio. “This current situation is an opportunity for us to change our model, for the hotels to change the offers they make based on these, let's say, alcohol consumption and cheap holidays," Rosana Morillo, the Balearic Islands’ head of tourism, told CNN.

Tasya Menaker
Party busses that would in other seasons be transporting clubbers are parked for 2020

Gatherings are still possible, even with such limiting restrictions. It’s a far cry from a packed dance floor at DC-10, where there’s usually no space at all, with everyone tightly packed into the famous red-walled Terrace room. Or the jubilant atmosphere in the bathrooms at Hï, where the centerpiece is a fully operational DJ booth.

During this strange season, club owners have had to be ingenious to keep the party spirit alive. At Ibiza Rocks, organizers did their utmost to pivot around each new addition to the guidelines. At one point they couldn’t have people at their events unless they were guests at the hotel, so they gave a room to anyone who was spending at least €100.

“I’ve really missed the Ibiza we know,” says Gastón Calabresi, chief marketing officer for Pacha Group. “Ibiza is a reunion place. You come here to connect, bond and mingle with people. This year was the opposite. It was weird.”

One bonus for some of the staff: some much-needed time off. With 2020’s season paused, many of those who usually get caught up in the summer-long party have been able to take a breather and enjoy a less-hectic schedule. Typically, like most club staff, Dempsey will be in Ibiza for the whole summer and move to Amsterdam for the winter. “I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve never been in Amsterdam all summer before,” he says.

More importantly, the island itself has had a chance to breathe. Local environmental group IbizaPreservation has noted an increase in demand for locally grown produce. "Already our Sustainability Observatory has measured a 98% reduction in carbon emissions due to the reduced air traffic between March and May, the period in which Spain was in complete lockdown,” says Sandra Benbeniste, the group’s executive director. “We expect to see improvements in the quality of the waters around Ibiza, too.”

Every winter most clubs go through some kind of makeover or refinement, but this year they’ve been afforded more time and space to commence work. Eden is having a new DJ booth installed and undergoing other refurbishments. Pacha is initiating some cosmetic updates and installing a new lighting system.

Even if the clubs are able to operate normally next year, there is concern about whether people will be able to afford to attend. “A lot of people are going to come out of furlough soon,” Evans says. “But, generally, people find the money to rave.”

The club owners are, nevertheless, laying the foundation for the island’s clubbing economy to bounce back strongly. British company Pollen has initiated the Ibiza Opening Weekend, a huge multi-venue event in association with the International Music Summit (IMS), which kicks off the season each year. The 2021 opening weekend is scheduled to kick off a week earlier, on April 29, featuring artists such as Skepta, Seth Troxler, Duran Duran, Goldie and BPM Festival. Amnesia has announced Jamie Jones’ Paradise party and Hï has already put up billboards advertising the 2021 season.

“Our obligation is to be optimistic,” Benitez says. “People are having a bad time, and they have to feel and think that everything is going to improve, and that we will return to a normality like the one we once enjoyed.”

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