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Midnight Beast and the vulnerable image of destination Ibiza

September 12, 2011
Kerry K-C
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Is this irresponsible tourism?  A group of London lads travel to Ibiza to film a music video parodying a certain brand of British tourism--cue littering, reckless spending, drunkenness, vomiting, and the wanton spreading of venereal disease--and subsequently achieve notoriety by posting their production, Pizza in Ibiza, to YouTube (390,000+ views since early June).

While the Director General of Tourism for the Balearic Islands’ autonomous community, Jaime Martínez has erupted--“it’s intolerable that four louts have smeared the image of Ibiza for their own benefit”--I was left wondering if they hadn’t captured part of the reality of mass party tourism to Ibiza.

As several academics have intuited, destinations that assume visitors are passive consumers of those products marketed to them, do so at their long-term peril.  Are Midnight Beast not rebellious tourists making a good point about the vagaries of the mass-market sun, sand and sea holiday industry, albeit not to everyone’s taste?

OK, I’m probably stretching the argument a bit there.  But see for yourself.  Reflect.  I know what “we Brits” can be like abroad, but...   Have you been to Ibiza?  Was the Mickey ripe for the taking?  Or was Ibiza just unlucky to have been singled out, given that any number of Mediterranean holiday destinations might have qualified for the same treatment?

Understandably, Martínez counters that the image portrayed by the music video is “false and distorted”.  And quite rightly he points out that Ibiza has more to offer than the sun, sand, sea and clubbing formula, including holiday experiences linked to the island’s past, its natural environment, gastronomy and so on.  But as an advocate for the island’s tourism industry in its current form he’s in a tricky position.  Besides conservation efforts and the need to encourage other kinds of tourism, Martínez states clearly that Ibiza’s acclaimed nightlife “must be maintained”.  So is the challenge to make hedonistic tourism to Ibiza more responsible?  Is this feasible?

In Taking Responsibility for Tourism Harold Goodwin considers that “once a destination gains a hedonistic reputation it is very difficult to move away from it: the established businesses rely on the kind of tourism for which they have a reputation and other opportunities are generally incompatible with party tourism.  There is a strong case for enclaving it and isolating it” (p.181).  But even if party tourism could be enclaved in Ibiza, those holidays would still take place in and be identified with Ibiza, leaving the island’s reputation vulnerable to the whims of the press, songwriters, videomakers, word-of-mouth, etc, etc...   the list of potential Channels of Denigration is long!.

Goodwin also highlights a number of initiatives to build bridges between the originating market--in this case the UK--and the destination.  This includes tour operators Club 18-30 and Thomas Cook working with bar owners in destinations, holiday rep training on sustainability in destinations, advertising campaigns, distributing awareness-raising posters to hotels, and providing pre-departure information on drugs, alcohol and sex; the UK’s Department of Health (Be Frank and Drinkaware campaigns), the UK Foreign Office (Know Before You Go) and the Travel Foundation (Make a Difference While You Party).

These are responses from a diversity of organisations in the originating market.  They attempt to nudge, encourage and warn young holidaymakers to avoid certain behaviours once in destinations like Ibiza.  What can the destination do?

I would like to see a reflective response from authorities and other major tourism stakeholders in Ibiza.  Regardless of Pizza in Ibiza’s dubious merits or intentions, it demonstrates how readily the destination can be disparaged, even by ‘amateurs’, in a marketplace much defined by social networking activity, stiff competition, and consumer whims.

Ibiza, much like other destinations, can only partially affect the image it portrays to potential holidaymakers.  In contrast, by prioritising the ongoing development of better places to live in and visit, tourism authorities might have less media crisis management to do in the long-run.

Perhaps a bit like a recovering alcoholic, those with power, control and responsibility in the destination need first to agree that they have issues to deal with; collectively, as a whole.  Ultimately, solutions will depend on many, often quite disparate groups recognising their role and responsibility in sustaining a shared place (the destination), a shared trade (tourism) and a shared image of both.

In the meantime, other intriguing illustrations of the vulnerability of destinations in relation to the behaviour of tourists, national stereotypes, fragmented business interests, and the difficulties of steering the destination towards a more desirable future, will surely abound.  I will write again soon on similar incidents that have emerged in Barcelona from that other group often overlooked or assumed to be passive in the creation of visited places.  “Locals” can be as rebellious as tourists, if not more so, corrupting efforts to maintain pleasing destination images in the process.

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