Spotlight on Geopolitics

Postcard from Santorini

This week I have just completed my working tour of Greek islands. My last stop was the “pearl of the Cyclades”, Santorini. Though small, with a land area of only 73 squared km, from April to October Santorini attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, from every corner of the Western world. In August, the bulk of European tourists come from Italy, with a sprinkling of Spanish, French and Britons. Many island-hopping Australians, Canadians and Americans are also attracted by the natural beauty of the island, its history and spectacular sunsets.

Santorini used to have the cachet of an exclusive and quiet retreat, where the European and American intelligentsia, artists and musicians got away from the stress of life in big cities and high-pressure careers. Not anymore. Somebody – I wonder who – had the brilliant idea of bringing mass tourism to Santorini, with disappointing results. These days, the island’s population of only 14,000 has to handle a huge wave of visitors, most of them young, budget travellers and many backpacking representatives of the world-wide green movement. They overcrowd Santorini, roam around on rented scooters all day and all night, creating a chaotic and noisy environment where true relaxation is next to impossible.

The only beach that remains relatively unspoilt and which offers peace and quiet is Vlychada, to the south of Perissa. The most crowded beach is Kamari, where taverns and cafes clutter the shore and sunbathers have to put up with coffee-sipping voyeurs of all ages and nationalities. In the evening, tourists have to slalom their way through aggressive and often impolite restaurant promoters, interested in wrestling clients away from their competition. Most taverns and cafes lack air-conditioning systems or basic fans, hygiene standards are low and the language skills of waiters leave much to be desired. In the extreme Santorini heat (it’s the only place in Europe with a desert climate), all of the little things above become very stressful indeed.

The heroes of the Santorini tourist season have to be the hard-working Albanians, who for only 30 euros have to slave away 14-hour days in hellish restaurant kitchens, hired by abusive, cranky bosses. The local bus tickets are expensive. So are fresh fruits and vegetables, or any other products sold in shops and supermarkets, compared with mainland Greece.

Investors in the development of Greek tourism should consider the ecological limits of aggressively promoting island destinations. The future of Greek tourism does not lie in the islands, but with continental locations. Spaniards (Costa del Sol) and Turks do not make the bulk of their tourist dollars on islands, but on their respective coastal resorts. In Greece, there are many stretches in between existing resorts that are still awaiting development, in northern Macedonia, for example, on the east coast and so on. Bringing hordes of tourists on small islands such as Santorini benefits only the air- and sea- carriers, but will backfire in time, putting off future visitors altogether. For economic analysts astute enough to understand what is taking place under their own eyes, the phenomenon is already underway.

At the root of this seems to be the lack of a comprehensive, coherent and intelligent development strategy for Greek tourism as a whole. The sooner Greek policymakers realise this, the better. The problem with steadily diminishing market share is that once a tourist destination starts losing favour with visitors, the trend cannot be reversed, irrespective of how much advertising dollars are thrown at it.

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