Santorini: The Greek island caught in a tourism trap

Greece Letter: Mayor is alive to danger of the island’s success ‘returning as a boomerang’

Imagine 2½ million tourists arriving each summer on Inishmore. That's the number of visitors to the Greek island of Mykonos – half by plane, half by cruise ship.

And the same on Santorini, one of the world’s top island destinations. But the difference is that, where the mayor of Mykonos hopes to expand visitor numbers throughout the year, the mayor of saturated Santorini is calling for less.

No one can put a stop to the increase in tourism in Greece, not least because it is Greece's number one industry and an increasingly important part of the country's still shrinking economy. Officially, the tourism industry employs 400,000 people (20 per cent of the country's workforce). Technically, in the village where I live, no one is "employed" in tourism, but in the summer almost every available pair of hands, from grandchildren to grandparents, is hustled into the bars and tavernas to lay tables, serve food, cook, wash dishes and provide friendly back-up.

Greece's human resources or personnel are its greatest asset, yet they receive little support from the tourism ministry

While climate, landscape and accommodation are basic factors, the most vital ingredient is the people who provide the service. Throughout Greece these are not so much the upmarket hoteliers but the local people earning a crucial living from the six-month season.


But tourism is almost entirely unregulated and lacks any purposeful encouragement at government level. While “mass tourism” from package deals and cruise ships is essential, niche markets such as marinas (where Greece is outstripped by near neighbour Croatia), golf courses (almost non-existent at present), skiing and cultural specialisms including gastro-tours and wine festivals are underexploited. The “image” of Greece as a destination with a purpose beyond sun, sand, sea and sex is in urgent need of remedial treatment.

The term “human resources”, which has replaced the term “personnel”, is totally relevant here: Greece’s human resources or personnel are its greatest asset, yet they receive little support from the tourism ministry, which is driven by the need to maximise the statistics: “Never mind the quality, feel the width.”

Boomeranging success

The mayor of Santorini, Nikolaos Zorzos, has limited the number of tourists from cruise ships to 8,000 per day. It's a local, unilateral action that doesn't take into account the additional 6,000 day-trippers arriving on local ferries. Locals complain that "All they want is to see the sunset". Zorzos says: "If I have to close the streets I will do so. We have come to the point that if we do not do anything, the success will return as a boomerang against us. So we have to see what we can do to protect and preserve our uniqueness. The challenges we face are many. We are an island with urban problems."

Due to the explosion of Airbnb rentals, seasonal workers coming to the island can find nowhere to sleep. Rubbish disposal is near-impossible, and from early morning the traffic jams created by tourist buses make the island’s tiny streets impassable. There’s a constant danger of water shortage (as there is on Mykonos too). But the greatest contributor to the congestion is the defiance of planning laws.

Zorzos points to unlicensed hotel construction as a factor not only crowding the island numerically but pushing out its other major feature: production of the world-famous Assyrtiko wine, grown on Santorini’s unique volcanic soil. “The island has become one huge hotel,” he says.

Last month Greece exited the eight-year bailout programme. But, with the prospect of continuing in-depth surveillance and a massive, immovable, national debt, it needs sensibly managed tourism more than ever. The economy – apart from tourism – has shrunk 25 per cent, and foreign investors, crucial to growth, are still deterred by the fragility and uncertainty of the exchequer.

Greece may be unique in its classical civilisation but its age-old reputation for hospitality has inundated it with sunseekers who care little for the culture

There is no advantage in pointing at any individual, any political party or any specific section of the international community for the scenario the country is now facing. Successive governments merely faced an impossible task: how to make an essentially traditional society, still in the painful aftermath of a world war, a civil war and a military junta, into a modern capitalistic state, when almost its sole assets are its landscape, its heritage and its people.

Santorini's "preserve our uniqueness" applies not only to the physical beauty of Greece's sunsets, crystal-clear warm waters and the inimitable xenophilia that make up the idea of Hellenism. It also identifies the aspirations, celebrations and the essential filotimo (love of honour) that make Greek people Greek.

Greece may be unique in its classical civilisation and antiquities, but its age-old reputation for hospitality has inundated it with sunseekers who care little for the culture of the “human resources”, which is the legacy of those previous centuries. This culture can play a vital role in rebranding the tourist industry. It is one of the most persuasive examples of the truth that one must understand the past and carry it into the future as an asset rather than a liability.