San Antonio, the troubled child of Ibiza. The small fishing village, turned purpose built tourist resort, has been a magnet for negative media comment ever since Ibiza Uncovered was aired on Sky television back in 1997. Its the Ellis Island for first time Ibiza tourists, the place where many, myself included, experienced their initial taste of the island. Before the days of Ryanair and Easyjet offering independent travel options, the vast majority of tourists arriving from the Northern Hemisphere were brought to Ibiza by package tour operators. There were two basic options – a one week holiday or two weeks. It was the home of the low cost, mass tourism “pack em in and stack him high” business model. Before that, San Antonio had been a vibrant and bohemian town of small bars, filled with artists and travelers from around the world arriving by boat from Valencia and Barcelona. It was the place to be in Ibiza, home to musicians, writers, designers and poets. The building over the Mint Lounge housed many of them. It was home to Lluis Guell who designed Cafe Del Mar and Es Paradis and before him German painter, William Faber, who did the interior design for the resorts oldest hotel, the Hotel De Portmany on the Plaza Espana. During that golden era for San Antonio, people like Pepe Rosello of Space, Javier Anadon of Cafe Mambo, José Padilla and Carl Cox, all cut their teeth in San Antonio. However all that changed in 1983 when the package operators became powerful and the West End was overrun with Bar Crawls and Stag parties with the looky looky men, pickpockets and drug dealers soon feeding off the tourists.
The problem with package tour operators was that they took advantage of their “captive” audience. There was no internet or Tripadvisor to advise people on what to do or expect on a holiday in Ibiza. The “Reps” were the tourist guides, the people empowered by contract to look after their guests. Arriving in a foreign country for the first time and not been able to speak the language, limited the holiday experience available. Apart from “looking after” their clients, the tour operators had another important job to do – sell tourists overpriced excursions and bar crawls in the West End, where they received kick backs and commission from the bar owners they shepherded their “flock” into. A tourist was told never to leave the group or else the Spanish bogeyman would get them! The original West End in San Antonio was actually Calle Colon where The Mermaid and Huddle Bar are now located. The neon lit, illegal PR filled strip known as the West End today, is a mongrel extension of the original West End, fed and cultivated by the demands of the package tour companies. The original West End bars were too small to fit over 50 bar crawl tourists that would appear after dark, blindly following their reps like the pied piper of Hamelin so bigger bars along the now infamous strip were opened to accommodate them. San Antonio was a package holiday tourist trap and it was not the local community that created the den of iniquity that is The West End today, it was the package tour companies who demanded a low cost product. They held huge power in the resort, making or breaking a Hotels owners season by the number of rooms they would book and they always dealt at the lowest price on offer to increase their profit margins.
That all started to change with the advent of the internet, low cost airlines and most importantly, the emergence of Tripadvisor, which opened up the tourist market in Ibiza. The small local hotelier could now advertise and compete to offer something different from the package model that was tube fed to them in the past. Before TripAdvisor, tourists were not aware local hotels existed. Many Hoteliers in Ibiza have told me how important Tripadvisor is to their business, as it brings a different type of client to the island, the one wanting to experience local culture, restaurants and activities. The package operator still exist, mainly in the British market and they continue to blight the tourism landscape in San Antonio with their cheap “All Inclusive” product, which is sadly killing off local bars and restaurants. This is where one of the serious problems facing San Antonio lies – its inability to change, to modernise and become true to itself and not outside influences dictating policy to them. The owners of the old hotels and businesses who profited from the now outdated concept of the tour operator, do not want to give that model up. There are clinging desperately to it as they know no better. Its sad to walk around San Antonio Bay and see the same fake tourist crap on sale in every shop and you know the tat isn’t selling, by the sparse looking shelves and worried faces of the shops owners. They are living in the past. It is the Hotels and businesses that are brave and booking outside the tour operators, through Tripadvisor and building their own websites, that are surviving as they are working hard to improve their product and appeal to a different client.
The local tourism board supports the big hotels and owners and seems not to care about promoting small business in San Antonio. A concept to promote Small and Beautiful family run hotels in San An failed to get off the ground because of lack of support. I have visited Ibiza for nearly two decades and San Antonio would be one of my favorite places on the island, mainly for its people, who are vibrant, friendly and reflect a modern Ibiza. They are very proud of their town and the many positive and unique attractions it has to offer. I have always enjoyed the youthful, non-pretentious energy that San Antonio exudes in buckets, the wonderful sunsets, hidden beaches, restaurants and bars. That buzzing holiday atmosphere of freedom and fun in the sun. But there is a sinister element that feeds of that innocence and naivety and its been there for well over a decade and remains unchecked. The pickpockets, the drug dealers, the prostitutes and the villa thiefs who ruin peoples holidays without a second thought. Tourists are seen as fair game – this perception needs to change. There is a lawlessness about San Antonio and until its checked, there will always be a negative media perception surrounding it. Why is it that in Dublin or London there are no Looky Looky men, illegal PRs, prostitutes or drug dealers accosting tourists in Temple Bar or Trafalgar Square? Because they are not let. It is illegal for them to be there and they would be locked up if they tried it.
Why can the politicians and law makers of San Antonio not do the same? Ibiza is not a third world country, its a modern, wealthy and democratic autonomy, part of the European Union and well able to stand up for itself. I don’t live in Ibiza, I holiday there. I have no hidden or biased agenda and I always write from a tourist’s perspective. In my opinion, San Antonio has the potential to be the jewel in Ibiza’s crown, if it can rid the town of the scum that preys on tourists and openly touts for business. The locals are fighting to make this happen, but it’s up to the politicians to deliver. They need to care about San Antonio, they need to care about their identity – small local bars, hotels and restaurants and support them, not encourage tour operators and All inclusive business. Investors are willing to invest in San Antonio but only when it can shed the shackles of its past and grow up into a modern, law abiding resort, where a quality product can be delivered. Quality does not have to be expensive, it just has to reflect local culture – nowhere does simple better than Ibiza. Sectional interests and politics should put aside and a modern development plan for San Antonio as a whole, needs to be implemented urgently. Maybe the politicians can’t see the woods for the trees, or think they can sweep the problems under the carpet without anybody noticing them, but take it from a tourist who has been visiting the resort for 20 years, its not getting any better and I have genuine fears for the place. I would hate to see San Antonio loose its charm and I love the area very much, but maybe some tough love is required as action needs to be taken before it’s lost to the people. The question is; does anybody in power really care for San Antonio?