FORGET SANTORINI? Hold on, there’s a rescue plan for that (sunsets included)

Story and interview by Anthony Grant

Travelers today are on the hunt for deals (naturally) and experiences (more of a challenge). The era of mass tourism is going south fast, as epitomized by the spectacular crash of Thomas Cook last year. That collapse made barely a ripple in the United States but was a very big deal in Europe—the market’s way of saying, to all those soulless hulking hotels that bear down on the south coasts of Spain and Cyprus, “we’re done.”

Not quite the Greek island vibe you were looking for? Big tweaks are on the way.

Some vacations call for checking your brain at the door and wherever there’s a decent beach and cheap hotel rest assured there’s gonna be a market for it. But in the age of EasyJet and Instagram toxicity the tables have turned and the sea change is here. Just consider the classic Greek island of Santorini: who ever would have thought that an island ripped to shreds by a volcano would one day become everybody’s posterchild for overtourism (though I’d put my money on Bill De Blasio’s Disney-fied Manhattan for winner of that strange prize).

Greece’s Minister of Tourism Harry Theoharis, for one, is having none of it. “Addressing overtourism is a priority for us,” Theoharis told us exclusively last month in New York. “For the time being it’s more a case of managing the flows more efficiently and ensuring that infrastructure is not as stressed as it currently is.”

Santorini, and in the distance Crete—where the famous Balos lagoon suffers from overtourism too.

The somewhat cliched Mediterranean holiday of island of Rhodes, which like tiny but objectively speaking gorgeous Santorini achieved mythic status mostly on account of what isn’t there (in Thira’s case a caldera where once there was land and in Rhodes, a sultry port where a widely known colossal statue once stood) is also in the Greek minister’s sights: “We just completed a study by EBRD  (the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) on two pilot destinations, Santorini and Rhodes to see exactly how we go about shaping DMOs (destination marketing organizations) and more actively managing development instead of sort of letting it drift. We’re also talking to mayors and formulating a plan to see how we can safeguard these destinations.”

For the author’s report on the trending Athenian neighborhood of Pagrati, please click here

As far as Santorini goes, the game plan has already got people talking with rumors swirling that by next summer tourists may have to actually buy tickets to see the famous sunset in once placid, now overcrowded Oia on the southern tip of the volcanic isle. We weren’t able to confirm this.

More likely are restrictions on some cruise ship disembarkations and a crackdown on Airbnb rentals – not something PR-minded Airbnb honchos in California will thrill to ahead of the beleaguered company’s planned IPO this year but something that would actually benefit the overall touristic experience of Santorini.

“We want to create a new framework for the management of such global destinations…while adding sustainability to the mix in a way that doesn’t clash with the priorities of the local population,” said Theoharis. To that end, a plan to ban single-use plastics on the island may eventually take effect.

“We have to take some intermediate measures for Santorini as we cannot wait for this new kind of institution to start working, we must accelerate the process in 2020,” he added.

In the meantime, of course, there are hundreds of other islands that people can explore and a heck of a lot of them are in Greece. “Destinations need identities, we can’t rely on tour operators anymore deciding to send people to non-descript places,” Theocharis confides. “We have loads of choices and loads of islands so we need to help define destinations’ identities. Kalymnos, for example, is a number one destination for climbing.”

The Ten places you must visit in Greece next summer? Check them out here.

Americans like Greece a lot. So do French and Israelis, but Americans spend more money, stay longer and complain less. Greece’s Ambassador to the United States, Haris Lalacos, confirmed as much — well, the part about Americans liking Greece, that is. And forget about Tom Hanks, recently given an honorary Greek citizenship, for a minute. In a separate interview, Lalacos said that “what is very encouraging for Greek tourism is that the past years consecutively have been record years for tourist arrivals in Greece, with the rate of increase 3, 4 or 5 percent, but the rate of increase for American tourists in the last few years has been triple that — it’s been in the double digits, which is very good.”

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece, is widely seen as more pro-business than his predecessor. Tourism is a pillar of the Greek economy.

No doubt if there were still a Concorde one-percenters like Hanks would fly it, first to London and then connecting to Athens or perhaps Crete on Aegean Airlines, an excellent airline and Star Alliance member (the only reason we would ever fly United being to accrue miles with Aegean), but for most other Yankees Greece is still a long-haul and business class doesn’t make the journey any shorter. And improbable as it may seem, there are more non-stop flights from the United States to Istanbul than there are to Athens. So we put the question to the Minister of Tourism himself: Can he envisage more non-stop flights from North America to Greece in the near future?

“Yes, I’m actively promoting that,” Theoharis says. “Obviously it’s a business decision but we try to make the case for this the best that we can. Currently in the winter there’s only one non-stop flight.” He added “It’s conceivable that a U.S. company will get the casino at Elliniko [editor’s note: Mohegan Sun already has]; they will build it in three years’ time. They will market it actively to bring Americans…So here there is a big potential.”

At the moment the only airline what would benefit from that potential would be one that isn’t even American, which to paraphrase President Trump is kind of, well, sad. Are there any U.S. gateways (beyond the obvious one of New York City) that Theoharis has in mind?

“Boston has great potential,” he says. “More than 60,000 people are going from Boston to Athens per year but right now without a direct flight.” As exciting as the prospect of linking the Athens of America to the real Athens may be, it’s not as exciting as getting the chance to ask the head honcho of tourism of one of the world’s most culturally rich and iconic countries what his favorite destination in Greece is: but like the nimblest of Greek politicians he will not be drawn.

“Always ask the locals! That’s what I do,” he says with a grin.

Landing at a Greek island near you…

But could he be slightly more specific?

“I come from the mountains so I prefer the mountains to the sea,” he adds.  People don’t realize that Greece is 80% mountains.”

To which we might ourselves add, why not have both? (after all, Prince did.) And Greece being only slightly larger than the state of Mississippi, there’s no reason why a smart traveler can’t take in Mykonos and Mount Olympus in one go.

Starting, may we suggest, with an extra few days to check out what’s new in Athens.

No, we haven’t forgotten about Mykonos. Got a question? Find us on Instagram at Athenianation

Featured image: Santorini from above courtesy Anthony Grant. New York, Harry Theocharis, Greek Minister of Tourism, photo courtesy Capital Link.