by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, June 4, 2018
Greece has faced a few problems in recent years. Attracting tourists hasn’t been one.
The country is expected to welcome a record 32 million foreign travellers in 2018 - up from just 6.2 million in 1998 and 15 million in 2010. No major European destination has seen a bigger increase in visitor numbers this decade.
Tourism is the shining light in Greece’s otherwise downtrodden economy. It has helped prop up a nation battling bankruptcy and a quarter of residents need the industry to make a living. But there is growing concern that it cannot cope with such rapid growth for much longer.
Rapid growth means strained infrastructure and overcrowding in big cities and at major attractions. During recent months we have seen tension between locals and visitors in destinations including Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Madrid, Mallorca and Kyoto, and “overtourism” has become something of a buzzword. Could Greece become the next battleground?
Nikos Chrysogelos, the Greek politician and environmentalist, fears so. “We can’t keep having more and more tourists,” he told the Guardian. “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.”
Which destinations are feeling the strain?
The Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO) says it is aware of the potential for problems and states that the country’s policy “dictates not moving beyond the carrying capacity of the environment”. But there is already evidence that breaking point is being reached in at least one location: Santorini.
Its spectacular sunsets and seascapes lure vast numbers of holidaymakers – a whopping 5.5 million overnight stays were recorded last year. But the island is just 76km² - smaller than the Isle of Sheppey - and traffic jams and overcrowding have become an issue, as has rising water and energy consumption.
Nikos Zorzos, the island’s mayor, who put a daily cap on cruise passengers in a bid to stem the tide of tourists, has warned that the island is at “saturation point”.
“Santorini has developed the problems of a city,” he added. “We have built numerous desalination plants and are in the process of erecting the biggest one in Greece, but in five years’ time I worry even that won’t be enough.”
Athens is another obvious potential pinch point. Like Santorini it is a popular stop for cruise lines, with more than one million passengers using its nearest port, Piraeus, each year. It has also appeared on numerous recent “must visit” lists, and seen a spate of hip new hotels opening their doors.
Emirates last year introduced flights from North America to Athens, and the Greek capital is increasingly appearing on the radar of Chinese travellers. The Greek authorities are seeking to make the visa process easier for Chinese nationals and to boost connectivity between the two countries. Last year a cruise ship catering to Chinese passengers made its inaugural Aegean cruise - starting in Piraeus.
While it is reasonable that Greece should wish to tap into the valuable Chinese market - and equally understandable that Chinese travellers should wish to explore Greece, a rapid increase in visitors could put huge pressure on the country’s infrastructure. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute predicts that overseas trips by the country’s residents will increase from last year’s figure of 145m to more than 400m by 2030.
Go out of season - or find an unsung alternative. The GNTO claims that “this increase in numbers isn’t accumulating on the summer months” and that it has seen a “significant raise in the shoulder season”. Convincing people to visit in spring, autumn and winter is key to keeping Greece unspoiled.
So too is persuading travellers to look beyond the obvious “bucket list” islands like Santorini, Mykonos, Corfu and Crete. Fortunately, the country has hundreds to choose from. Below are a few of our favourite lesser-known Greek gems. See our gallery for more.
The best-kept secrets in Greece
Rachel Howard suggests a trip to the Aegean island of Skyros. “Although Skiathos and Skopelos had a brief moment in the spotlight when ‘Mamma Mia’ was released in 2008, the rest of the pine-fringed Sporades islands have stayed under the radar,” she explains. “Refreshingly resort-free, Skyros is an island of woodcarvers, shepherds, and a unique breed of miniature horses. British poet Rupert Brooke is buried in an olive grove on Mount Kohilas, a stirring setting for windswept hikes. There’s only one proper town, tumbling down the hillside below the Byzantine monastery of St George. During carnival (February/March), locals dress up as goats and dance through the cobbled streets – an unforgettable Dionysian spectacle.”
John Malathronas, guidebook writer and Greece expert, recommends this volcanic island in the Cyclades.
“Universally publicised as the site where the Venus de Milo was discovered, but otherwise unfamiliar, the strange volcanic island of Milos is touted as the next Santorini-in-the-making," he says. "Its 70-odd beaches range from the eggshell-white moonscape of Sarakiniko (pictured) to the kaleidoscopic palette of the Paleochori cliffs, where geothermal energy is so high that tavernas offer stews cooked overnight in clay pots buried in the sand.
“The eastern half of the island is also dotted by thermal springs whose healing powers are recommended by none other than Hippocrates, while the western half is a protected nature reserve with sheltered sandy coves, such as Kleftiko, only accessible via excursion boats. To top it all, a network of early Christian catacombs, an eye-opener of a mining museum and the architectural singularities of the Holy Trinity church at Adamas should satisfy the most ardent history buffs on their off-beach day.”
“Hidden away between the larger Cycladic islands of Naxos and Amorgos, Koufonissia (plural) is made up of two tiny islets, Ano Koufonissi (Upper Koufonissi) and Kato Koufonissi (Lower Koufonissi), which are separated by a 200-metre sea channel,” says Jane Foster. “While Kato Koufonissi remains uninhabited, Ano Koufonissi, with its whitewashed Cycladic cottages, has a buzzing little community of 366. Locals live mainly from fishing – it is claimed that there are more boats than residents – there are no real roads and hardly any cars, so everyone either walks or cycles.
“Before 1980, there was no electricity either, and it is only over the last decade that Koufonissi has become a popular escape with Athenians in search of an unpretentious and inexpensive summer holiday. It's much loved by yachters too, who moor up their sailing boats along the seafront, to unwind after visiting the noisier and glitzier islands of Santorini and Mykonos.”
Rachel Howard writes: “Only an hour by high-speed ferry from Santorini, Folegandros has the same magnificent drama without the crowds, glitz and inflated prices. Anemomilos (studios from €150, including breakfast), a cluster of minimalist rooms teetering on a cliff edge, is run with panache by the delightful Patelis family. Fishing boats and donkey paths lead to a string of crystal coves. Evenings are spent figuring out which is your favourite taverna in the four squares of the brilliant white Chora, as you sample matsata (rabbit or rooster tagliatelle) and rakomelo (grappa with honey). Hike off the hangover with a dawn stroll to the hill-top Panagia church, a zigzagging 20-minute ascent from Anemomilos, to watch the sun surface from the Aegean.”