Loved for their shimmering beaches, sunny year-round climate and seductive hotels, the four wildly beautiful Balearic Islands make up one of Europe's most sought-after destinations, just off Spain's east coast.
But whether it's the party crowd flocking to Ibiza and Mallorca or summer sun-seekers descending on Formentera and Menorca, overtourism on these blissful Spanish islands has grown into a major concern in recent years. As a result, the Balearic authorities have taken a pioneering role in Spain by introducing a raft of new responsible tourism measures to become 'the world's first circular destination.' The goal is to achieve a more balanced and sustainable tourism model that also protects the islands' natural environment and the needs of the local population.
In 2022, the Balearics received about 16.5 million visitors, around the same number as pre-pandemic in 2019. For context, the whole of Andalucía, for example, welcomed about 30.7 million tourists in 2022, while Spain's eight Canary Islands had around 14.5 million tourists. Now, reducing summer visitor numbers, encouraging off-season travel and boosting in-depth cultural visits that benefit the islands' communities are all part of the Balearics' long-term plans.
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"Sustainability and the circular economy are at the very core of the Balearic Islands' tourism strategy. It is crucial that we protect the natural environment and cultural heritage of our islands, for both residents and future visitors to enjoy for years to come," Iago Negueruela, tourism minister of the Balearic Islands, tells Lonely Planet. "Our islands have so much more to offer than sun and beach, and we encourage tourists to visit outside of high season to experience our cultural, gastronomic and active offerings, thus spreading the flow of tourism throughout the year."
Staying overnight? You have to pay a tourism tax
Following in the footsteps of its mainland neighbor Catalonia, the Balearics became Spain's second region to introduce a tourism tax back in 2016. The Impuesto del Turismo Sostenible (ITS; Sustainable Tourism Tax) or ecotasa means a charge of €1 to €4 per person per night in tourist accommodation, which is channeled back into local conservation efforts, such as the preservation of the oxygen-producing posidonia seagrass that gives the Balearic Sea its famous turquoise sparkle and the restoration of various mountain lodges in Mallorca's rugged Serra de Tramuntana. It's a growingly popular approach – the Valencia region has just approved a tourist tax due to come into force in 2024, and several other popular Spanish destinations are rumored to be considering it, including San Sebastián, Málaga, Granada, Seville and Santiago de Compostela.
Ban on new hotels and other tourist accommodations
Then in 2022, the islands brought in a ban on creating new hotels and other tourist accommodations (apartment rentals included) until at least 2026. Existing accommodation can now only extend or refresh its current buildings by 15% and always with the condition of reducing the number of beds by 5%. In Mallorca's capital Palma, Airbnb-style tourist apartments have been banned since 2018, amid growing concerns that rising rents have been pushing out local residents. Another key element is the protection of local workers in the tourist sector, with initiatives including a recent ruling that all four- and five-star hotels must have lift-up beds to help reduce injuries and overexertion among housekeeping staff.
Less pollution, less noise and alcohol limits
In a bid to preserve its natural spaces, Formentera (the go-slow Balearic sister still only accessible by ferry, off Ibiza's southeast coast) has been limiting vehicle access during high season since 2019. From mid-June to mid-September, non-Balearic visitors who want to drive a car or motorbike here must apply in advance for a permit and, if approved, pay a daily tax of €3 (minimum €15 total) or €1.50 (minimum €7.50 total) respectively; electric vehicles are excluded, while hybrids get a 50% discount. Menorca is now also considering a similar scheme that could begin as early as this summer, as part of the new Menorca Reserva de la Biosfera law approved in January 2023.
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Elsewhere, to explore the Balearics' bird-rich sole national park, the Parc Nacional Marítim-Terrestre de l'Arxipèlag de Cabrera in Mallorca, visitors must also pre-book permits; just 200 to 300 people a day are allowed access and only to the main Illa de Cabrera, from Easter to October. In the party-loving hubs of Ibiza and Mallorca, limits on the number of alcoholic drinks that can be served at all-inclusive resorts have been in force since 2020. The islands are also actively increasing transport links outside summer, such as a recently launched year-round Vueling flight between London and Menorca. Meanwhile, some local hotels are already taking the plunge and staying open throughout the low season.
How you can contribute responsibly
For anyone traveling to the Balearics, there are plenty of ways to contribute responsibly. How about taking advantage of the islands' reliable ferry links with mainland Spain and skipping the flight? Or dining at independent restaurants celebrating Balearic cuisine and fresh on-the-doorstep ingredients? You can also shop at local farmers' markets and artisans' shops; choose low-impact activities such as hiking, cycling or horse-riding, ideally with an expert local guide; and learn about the islands' many unique traditions, from cheese-making to foraging botanicals for Ibiza's beloved hierbas tipple.
Tourist accommodation is a major part of the picture – seek out a responsible base that is genuinely committed to more sustainable tourism, which might include lovely rural agroturismes keeping local traditions alive or stylish boutique hotels reviving historic buildings while prioritizing eco-friendly initiatives.