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Letter from Athens: Greece’s Tourism Dilemma: Too Little, Too Much

Delta Airlines Flight 202 from JFK to Athens – Greece is so popular in 2022 that direct flights were pushed back past October into the fall – had just 11 empty seats in its capacity of 293 when it left the night of Nov. 1 and arrived the next morning.

By the time it landed shortly after 8 AM the passengers eager to visit lined up for their luggage and queued at passport control for those who weren’t from the European Union. There were two holding Greek passports at a separate gate.

One elderly couple, so giddy to be going, managed to somehow bring on board three carry-on suitcases instead of the limit for one each, and as I helped lift the bags onto the overhead bins just had to ask: “You moving house?”

“We’re staying two weeks,” the woman said cheerfully.

That suits Greece just fine but the irony is that so many were coming this year – it was on a track to beat the record 33 million in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic – that the most popular places can’t handle them.

About three times the country’s population will be visiting, a number akin to New York City getting 25.5 million tourists a year – and Greek islands especially don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.

That includes Santorini – population 13,500 – which gets as many as 2.5 million people a year, all thinking the sun sets only on that island, and they stand elbow-to-elbow and cheek by jowl to take selfishies.

That’s just too many, despite the money they spend. In some villages new construction amounts to about 90 percent of all buildings, and from 2004-15 – before the super-popularity buzz arrived – the number of hotel beds grew 50 percent, said Greece Is, all aimed at separating foreigners from their money.

Nikos Chrysogelos, a Member of the European Parliament for the Ecologist Greeks and an environmentalist spoke to the British newspaper The Observer – in 2018 before worry about overtourism galloped – of the dilemma.

“We can’t keep having more and more tourists,” he told the Observer. “We can’t have small islands, with small communities, hosting one million tourists over a few months. There’s a danger of the infrastructure not being prepared, of it all becoming a huge boomerang if we only focus on numbers and don’t look at developing a more sustainable model of tourism.”

Few are listening because the lure of the money is just too much: it could surpass the 2019 record of 18 billion euros ($17.75 million) and even shoot past the 20 billion euros ($19.72 billion) mark and that trumps everything.

Santorini, however, is trying to cap it, setting a limit on how many cruise ship passengers can come onto the island because there’s more than 800,000 of them annually and the narrow hillside streets can’t handle it, never mind the donkeys.

“Years of austerity has led to a very visible lack of investment in the islands’ infrastructure,” said the site Responsible Travel about the problems facing Santorini and other Greek islands.
“Desalination plants, hospital clinics, roads, ports, ferry services, power grids – they are all struggling under the uncontrolled rise in tourist numbers. Water shortages and power cuts on the islands aren’t uncommon,” it said.

A vacation should be to go where people aren’t, not where they are, and by going to the same islands year after year – including Rhodes and Crete and Corfu – tourists are missing the real Greece in places less traveled.

Corfu isn’t the only Ionian island overrun although the problems are more acute in parts of the Aegean and Dodecanese. Ionians such as Zakynthos – AKA hooligans Island because it’s a hot spot of drunken violent thugs, and Kefalonia are also being worn out.

The site noted that it’s worse on the so-called Headline Islands where “Ferries overflow with people and luggage in high season, along with roads, ports, airports, while waste disposal facilities and electricity grids struggle to cope with the surge in numbers. It’s not just the lack of economic investment that’s to blame; it’s the sheer number of people using finite island supplies.”

The New Democracy government is trying to convince people to visit other islands and also spread tourism around the mainland: the second-largest city Thessaloniki, a major port with influence from conquerors is worth a visit, as are Ioannina, home to Lake Pamvotiza, and the mountain villages above Nafpaktos in western Greece, giving rise to an idea of Airbnb’s for places being abandoned.
On the site BuzzFeed, staff writer Hannah Loewentheil said she discovered the dangers of what overtourism can do in a visit she took with her husband, stopping at – you guessed it – Santorini, as well as Folegandros, Siphnos, and Milos for an island hopping adventure.

Alas, there were mixed feelings about Santorini: “It’s one of those destinations that is almost ruined by over-tourism. Everything was very overpriced, wildly busy, and ‘Instagrammable’, which sadly made the island lose a little bit of its magic for me.” But she concluded: “I want to return to Greece ASAP to explore even more of the country. Between the islands and the mainland, there is SO much to see,” she said.

Don’t limit your itinerary to where everyone goes because as Yogi Berra put it about why he didn’t go to Toots Shor’s restaurant anyone: “No one goes there – it’s too crowded.”

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