Greece has faced a few problems in recent years. However, attracting tourists hasn’t been one until now.
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 during 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 its burgeoning popularity 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, a 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” by focusing on the “extension of the summer tourism season and the development of thematic tourism which attracts visitors all year round”.
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 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 told The Guardian last year. “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 it is becoming an increasingly popular destination amongst Chinese visitors. Therefore, the Greek capital has seen a spate of hip new hotels opening their doors, as well as the rise of apartments offered for days through Airbnb, with the consequent increase in rent prices, a big problem for locals.
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 – by 27 per cent in the spring months and 33 per cent in the autumn months”. 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. Some of the lesser-known Greek gems are the islands of Skyros, Milos, Koufonissia o Folegandros.