Overtourism Is No Greek Myth Say Island Residents.

Tourists on the Greek island of Santorini [Katy Fallon/Al Jazeera]
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While Caribbean islands constantly seek to get in even for thick-walleted tourists by means of improving airports to receive large aircraft, building more hotels, and receiving more cruise ships, several islands in Greece have the reverse problem–too many tourists chasing too few spaces.

While it is now late in the summer tourist season as schools and colleges in Europe resume, visitors still pack the small, white-washed streets of one of the country’s most iconic destinations: the volcanic island of Santorini.

Just like in the Caribbean, tourism is a lifeblood of the Greek economy, accounting for about 25 percent of it, and 90 percent of Santorini’s economy is dependent on visitors  who fly in or arrive on cruise ships or ferries.

The Greek islands in summertime have the perfect combination of clear sunny weather, beautiful landscapes, beaches, good food, and the world’s best ruins, archeological sites, and museums, so they find no shortages of visitors jumping on aircraft to escape  from nothern Europe’s chilly winds and gray skies.

It has become a double-edged sword for Santorini as the island’s 15,000 residents can see up to two million yearly visitors who often need reminders on how to behave. Placards placed around Santorini’s villages remind tourists to respect the homes and holy sites.

George Sarelakos, founder and president of Aegean Rebreath, an organisation working to protect the marine environment, told Al Jazeera that high visitor numbers also presented an increasing environmental risk to Santorini, particularly given the island’s relative shortage  of drinkable tap water.

“You can imagine all these thousands of tourists being on the islands, buying one or two bottles of water per day. We’re talking about a crazy amount of plastic that ends up at the bottom of the sea,” he said.

Aegean Rebreath has undertaken activities such as encouraging many of the luxury yachts which dock on the island for onboard recycling and has organised harbour-cleaning activities.

“I won’t forget the facial expression of the tourists when they saw a tonne of marine litter coming out from the harbour,” Sarelakos said.

He said it was essential drinkable tap water solutions were found to make the island more sustainable.

“We really believe as Aegean Rebreath that the path Santorini and other islands in Greece are on is not viable,” Sarelakos said.

With many Greeks earning only about 800 euros ($857) a month, rising costs have also meant some are priced out of popular tourist destinations with the average price for a hotel in Santorini being about 150 euros ($160).

Paros, a neighbour of Santorini in the super-popular Cyclades Islands group, which has a total of 12,000 permanent residents, saw 560,479 ferry arrivals in 2021 and has also had renewed focus on tourist footfall.

This summer locals protested against the swarms of privately owned sunbeds and parasols taking up large stretches of sand and charging about 100 euros ($107) for a set, leaving no space for others to use the beach.

Some businesses received permits to use the beach, but residents pointed out they often started putting loungers well beyond the agreed limits, meaning others could not lay their towels on the sand.

Christos Georgousis, a retired teacher and permanent resident of Paros, said residents were tired of the continuous occupation of swaths of sand by expensive sunloungers.

“Without rules, we cannot live. And these rules seemed to be flouted by the beach pirates,” he said, adding that the protests had so far largely been successful.

He said arrests had been made and action taken by the power of the residents’ protest with a Facebook group dedicated to “Saving Paros Beaches” made up of more than 12,000 members.

Paris Tsartas, professor of tourism development at Harokopio University of Athens, told Al Jazeera that the issue of “overtourism” was particular to a number of oversaturated destinations such as Santorini and Mykonos, presenting problems notably for key workers such as doctors who often struggled to find accommodation.

“The rents are sky high. And this is, of course, related to overtourism. So they prefer to rent their houses to the tourists, and not to the people who are involved in all these very vital sectors,” he said.

Tsartas said he expected overtourism to become a bigger headache in the next five to 10 years.

Meanwhile, Greece expects another bumper year for tourism.

Data from MarineTraffic, a ship tracking platform, revealed Mykonos hosted 209 cruise ships from June to August this year, a 35 percent increase from last year during the same period. June peaked with 72 arrivals.

Sources: Al Jazeera, news agencies.
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