So overrun with tourists it’s a caricature of what once was a less-spoiled postcard perfect Greek island of blue sea and skies and white cliffside homes, and a blue-topped church becoming an iconic image, Instagram is putting Santorini out of focus for many.
Voted the World’s Best Island in 2014 by the magazine Travel + Leisure for his instant charm and spectacular views of a dormant volcano and sunsets to die for, it is on the Bucket List for just about everyone it seems, and they can’t wait to send selfies and snapshots and videos on the social network sharing service Instagram, ruining the party by inviting more.
Its beauty is now in the eye of the cell phone that sends instant images around the world, an electronic siren call to come, bringing a financial bonanza but also worry that its popularity will be its undoing, with cruise ships visits being limited.
In a feature in The Economist titled The Worrying Future of Greece’s Most Instagrammable Island, writer Jessica Bateman wrote of the dilemma of trying to find the heart of a near-perfect place without bumping into someone next to you snaking through narrow, meandering pathways on the cliffs adorned by luxury boutique hotels with pools.
She wrote of Agata Wagemaker who was taking a photo of a blue doorway in the village of Oia, high up on the cliff. Wagemaker has 50,000 followers on her Instagram account, Windmill Dreams and came in early April hoping to beat the hordes.
No such luck. They were already everywhere, waving selfie sticks like light sabers, jostling for position on a marble wall with the sea and sun behind them, hoping the thousands of others next to them won’t show up like Background People.
“If ever a place felt like it was made for Instagram, it is Santorini,” wrote Bateman. “It is famous for its expansive sunsets and blue and white domed churches, both of which have become a common backdrop on many an influencer’s feed. Its dramatic cliff-face – actually a crater formed from a devastating volcanic eruption in 1600 BC – is almost guaranteed to make first-time visitors gasp and whip out their smartphones.”
She said she asked a pair of women in their 20s, taking turns to take pictures of each other, why they picked Santorini. “All the pictures on social media!” said Fariah, who is from Paris. “I just wanted to see it for myself.”
The island’s Mayor, Loukas Bellonias, has heard it all before but with the world a flick of the finger away on your cell phone or computer, Santorini is the hot-button place.
“Santorini has very unique geography that people want to photograph immediately,” he told the magazine. “Social media has turned (it) from just another travel destination into one of the most popular in the world.”
So many people are trying to send photos on their phones at the same time that he said mobile phone companies are finding it difficult to provide enough data-sending ability for those thousands of images streaming around the world, with the tag #santorini on 5,119,277 Instagram posts early in May.
SOUND THE CHURCH BELLS ALARM
The European Parliament’s Transport Committee in January criticized Greek officials for favoring revenues over the island’s charms and attractions, saying it was saturated with tens of thousands of daily visits.
The committee’s report, completed in October, 2018, said that, “The lack of tourism governance and strategic cooperation between local and national authorities might put the future of the destination at risk,” said Kathimerini.
It added that the “implementation of effective policies aimed at managing and regulating increasing tourism flows is needed in order to ease the negative consequences of over-tourism on the local community. That is necessary to preserve the image of the destination, prevent deterioration, and safeguard the future tourism attractiveness of the island.”
The figures included in the report showed the number of overnight stays on the Cycladic island soared 66 percent in five years, rising from 3.3 million in 2012 to 5.5 million in 2017. Cruise passengers exceed 2,000 per day, reaching 18,000 at peak season.
Over the past five years, the number of overnight stays in Santorini has risen by 66%, the magazine added, and many people can’t wait to ride donkeys up 600 steps from the port to the top, but the strain, especially from the overweight, is wearing out the animals.
The demand is so great the cost of hotels has risen and now with short-term rentals like Airbnb taking over apartments, workers on the island are finding it difficult to find a place to rent, and developments are popping up like tourists in the spring here.
With no Master Plan and the country’s notoriously slow and inefficient bureaucracy and land registries only now underway, managing the use of land and space has added to the labyrinth of its growing problems.
“There are no penalties for ignoring legislation,” Ioannis Glinavos, Senior Lecturer in Law at Westminster University in London told the magazine. “There are some restrictions. For example, you cannot build on the beach, but you will see many hotels ignore this,” and he said officials have been known to accept bribes from building owners to build.
Ironically, local businesses are tying themselves to Instagram and social media to get people to come, even as permanent residents don’t want so many, even as the tourist season is beginning earlier and ending later.
Photography tours, in which professional photographers help tourists improve their snaps of the island, are increasingly popular, and companies that specialize in wedding and engagement shoots – particularly for Asian couples – are doing well, the report added.
“(Instagram) spreads the word for us on a daily basis,” Nikos Georgiadis, Marketing Manager of Katikies hotel told the magazine. The hotel’s Instagram feed, which has 53,000 followers, is packed with images of bikini-clad women gazing out at the edge of infinity pools and wandering down white-painted steps. Before social media, says Georgiadis, publicity campaigns “could only reach so many people. Now, there is no limit.”
Wagemaker said she’s worried she’s contributing to the overcrowding and that, “I’m sometimes cautious about sharing the small places I find. You never know when something will go viral and crowds of people will come swarming in.”
People go to dangerous lengths trying to outdo each other with the perfect shot that Instagram will send streaming away a few seconds later, even standing on slippery marble domes, a misstep away from injury or tragedy.
Michael Ermogenis, a Greek-American who used to work in advertising, has lived on Santorini for 12 years and told the writer that, “people treat churches like selfie studios,” and violate private property to get a shot.
His frustration at the crowds has led him to start hanging “respect” signs around Oia that state “it’s your holiday…but it’s our home.” Sounds like a great photo. But remember, if you take it, they will come.