Greece Letter: spiralling cost of traditional holiday locations makes Greeks strangers in their own land

Many in the Greek tourism industry are alarmed at the government’s emphasis on development through foreign investment in resorts

In 1990 the novelist Spyros Plaskovitis published I Kiria tis Vitrinas (The Showcase Lady), a satire on greed and corruption in his native Corfu. (He later became a judge of Greece’s supreme court and an MEP). Part of his novel detailed plans to sell the island of Vidos in the bay of Corfu to Saudi Arabian investors to boost the island’s tourism. One character argues that the island is useless. “It’s just sitting there all these years; are we supposed to sit here and look at it?”

Move on to 2020 when prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (re-elected last month) inaugurated a hotel project in Corfu which would have destroyed a unique ecosystem. Mitsotakis actually called this pristine promontory “a waste of space” and warned that it might catch fire. A month later arsonists proved him correct. It seems that the purpose of a beautiful landscape is to be exploited and built over – otherwise it’s not earning its keep.

Thirty years after Plaskovitis’s novel a real-life question mark hangs over Vidos, which is not only a beauty spot but home to a monument saluting the Serbian army which retreated here after its defeat in the first World War, and Corfu hosted the Serbian government-in-exile. It’s also a camping site, a nature reserve and displays historic evidence of the city’s early fortifications.

“Vidos is the balcony of the city and the jewel of Corfu,” say local residents who today are in real fear of the privatisation of the island. Access cannot be guaranteed. In 2021 the municipal ferry to Vidos mysteriously stopped running, and the only transport at that time was a motor-launch owned by the Ikos resort and exclusive to its clientele. Ikos, which operates resorts in Greece and Spain, was founded by Greeks but is now owned by a Singapore-based investment company.


It has recently run into local opposition in its redevelopment of the old Club Med site in Corfu due to its attempt to close off a right-of-way giving access to the beach. Beaches in Greece are by law public and cannot be privatised, much to the chagrin of resort developers throughout Greece.

While public opinion has welcomed the stability offered by the re-election of Mitsotakis and New Democracy, many in the tourism industry are alarmed at the government’s emphasis on development in the form of foreign investment in resorts.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Greece. In 1990 Plaskovitis wrote: “Its life is hanging by a thread on foreign currency.” So not much has changed. A 2022 Greek law for the development of tourism concentrates on the expansion of infrastructure, including motorways, and upgrading of hotels, but also pays lip-service to niche markets like mountain-walking, agritourism, food festivals and thalassotherapy.

But objectors to ecological damage and those trying to start up locally-based niche markets are unlikely to get much sympathy from this new government. A group of citizens on the Aegean island of Ios recently drew attention to the case in Magheramore, Co Wicklow, where a tourist development was disallowed by the planning authority. “Investment should not be evaluated only on the basis of money or the jobs it will create,” they said. But this is the main thrust of government policy. The tourism profile of Greece has changed, inevitably, dramatically and, it must be admitted, necessarily.

When I visited Mykonos in 1969 there was no airport and only one modern hotel. Once a haven for backpackers, it is now, as the New York Times recently reported, a “jet-set playground for billionaires, celebrities and influencers”. It’s even said that a couple were charged €300 for two Greek salads, two beers and a plate of oysters ... and paid! One villa (it has a twin in Corfu) is for rent at €11,000 a day; it has three infinity pools (in case one runs out of infinity).

Meanwhile, as many as 50 per cent of Greeks will be unable to take a holiday this year despite government handouts of 300,000 subsidy tokens awarded by lottery. To the average Greek family, “holiday” is a different concept to what western wage-earners understand by the term. “The Greek summer is part of our identity,” says journalist Thodoris Georgakopoulos. It’s a time for family reunions on islands where they grew up, especially around the festival of the Assumption (or Dormition in Greek) on August 15th. But the spiralling costs of their traditional locations makes Greeks strangers in their own land.

As I reported here in January, Corfu town has become in effect a museum and a vast souvenir shop. The expansion of cafe nightlife causes severe inconvenience to local residents, who feel they have no place in what, for at least six months of the year, is nothing more than a showcase – which brings us back to Plaskovitis and his Showcase Lady – the facade of respectability masking the get-rich-quick mentality which is, in reality, killing tourism.