What happened in Santorini when the tourism "machine" stopped

What happened in Santorini when the tourism “machine” stopped

(CNN) – There is a reason why Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis went to Santorini earlier this month when he wanted to announce the reopening of his country to tourism.

When the evening sun begins to descend behind the edge of the extinct volcano that the island is part of, it is one of the most romantic and beautiful photography opportunities on the planet.

It is a point of view that helps make Santorini the most visited island in Greece, receiving up to two million tourists annually – many of whom arrive on giant cruise ships that can be seen usually parked in the middle of the natural bay below.

The island will welcome international visitors by plane again from July 1, but warnings about the coronavirus mean that their numbers will be much lower than before and cruise ships will not return any time soon.

While this means brutal time for some companies, other companies on the island are enjoying the prospect of a new era, an era in which the beauty of Santorini can flourish without turning into a “machine that just created money”.

Double stroke

The closure of Covid-19 left Santorini abandoned.

The closure of Covid-19 left Santorini abandoned.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

The impact of Covid’s closure was already exciting for a tourism-dependent destination on 90% of its income. In the case of Santorini, the closure was a double blow as the island recently started opening its hotels and restaurants throughout the year.

During this forced isolation, only Santorini residents were allowed to the island. Guests from the mainland had to go home and no new tourists were allowed in. However, the strict closure succeeded. Not a single case of a potentially fatal disease has been diagnosed in Santorini.

Although the island is opening up again, everyone is cautious. Personal protection will not only be for the benefit of the guests.

“Nobody in Santorini wants to catch koyd,” says Joey Kerloki, who runs Dmitry Tavirana in Amode Bay. “I must say that with the closure we felt safe in Santorini as we had no cases and nobody came here. I think we all enjoyed the scenery and the calm for some time.”

Santorini, with its blue domed churches and 1,000-foot slopes, will look exactly the same, but will be extraordinarily empty.

“We expect 15% of visitors compared to previous years,” says George Filipides, general manager of Andronis Suites in Santorini. “The economic damage will be enormous. We will work at a loss for 2020 but we want to open up to provide job opportunities for our employees, and to support the local community that is totally dependent on tourism.”

Quiet and uncrowded

Cruise ships carrying up to 3,000 people are not expected to return in 2020.

Cruise ships carrying up to 3,000 people are not expected to return in 2020.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

The complete absence allowed visitors to complete several major projects. “The new terminal at the airport is now operational,” says Philipides. “The new road connecting Oia to the airport and part of the port of Athinios has also been completed, so getting around the island will be much easier,” he added.

For a destination that was second only to Venice with cruise ship releases, the fact that very few of these mega-ships – if any – would return in 2020 is good news. With each ship dismantling up to 3,000 people in minibuses, these floating hotels were blocking Santorini’s roads.

“The arrival of any cruise ship has not been confirmed,” says Filipides. “Even if they start at some point, that will be very limited.”

At Dmitri’s Taverna, one of the few restaurants on the pier offering uninterrupted views of the famous sunset in Santorini, Kerluke has to spoil tables and set up PPE.

“We will have fewer tables along the sidewalk, which is difficult for us as we already have a bistro,” she says. “We will wear masks and gloves. There will be a disinfectant for our customers as well.”

Kirklock, who arrived from Canada 25 years ago, says there is consolation.

“Those who decide to come to Santorini will have a great time,” she says. “They’ll see Santorini, calm and not crowded as before.”

“Strange time”

Locals think about Santorini's future.

Locals think about Santorini’s future.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

Aside from tourism, the other main pillar of Santorini’s economy was vineyards. Santyrini’s unique Santorini wines are exported worldwide, and most of the island’s 18 vineyards are open to visitors.

So far, 2019 should be vintage in restaurants and supermarkets across the island, but Petros Vamvakousis, director of Venetsanos Winery, says the closure has disrupted distribution.

“ Our vintage 2019 remains in stainless steel tanks and barrels, ” he says. “It was supposed to be packed between February and April but the five people who were going to do that had to stay home. Now we’re trying to catch up.

“We usually produce 50,000 bottles a year but we depend on exports, and this is close to zero at the moment. We have told our distributor in America that although restaurants are still closed in the United States, there is no market for Santorini wine in America.”

Like many wineries, Venetsanos until the crisis was able to earn income through tasting and tours. The winery is largely cut off on the slopes overlooking Athinios Port, and has a beautiful terrace where wine is served with snacks, but Vamvakousis says that the number of people that can be accommodated will be limited to four or six per table from now on.

He says, “We live in a strange time.” “Everything about the island reminds me of winter. Many restaurants, cafes and hotels are closed. It is summer now and it is very strange that Santorini is very quiet and very lonely.”

Turn off “machine”

Recent years have seen complaints about excess tourism in Santorini.

Recent years have seen complaints about excess tourism in Santorini.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

Famfacosis says he is optimistic that the busy days will return again, but he believes that the forced deflation will help reevaluate the island’s future.

“Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but I am sure the closure was helpful,” he says. “The machine that just created the money and did not care about the environment stopped. Now is the time to think about the error in Santorini. We have the right to protection, but we have no right to destroy.”

While money will be a big problem in 2020, it’s not all about the intermittent tourist season a disaster. Gill Rackham, originally from Britain, who has run Lutza and Oia Old Houses apartments with her husband Vasilis for more than 30 years, sees mixed blessings.

“Around a month ago, our July bookings looked good, with almost 75% occupancy, but now they have dropped to 20% and gone down,” says Rackham. “But my opinion is that in this disaster there will be winners. Santorini has been given a respite to breathe again … no crowds, no traffic jams … nor cruise ships.”

Rackham noted that “on the beaches of Perivolas and Brisa, there are a few bars that run but mostly for Greeks and local ethnic visitors!”

Some hotels took three months to close for a rethink of how they interacted with guests. “We will provide our services digitally,” says Andronis’s George Philipides.

“You will be able to check in online, order cocktails, book a cruise in the azure waters of the Aegean Sea, and find out when your flight ends, simply using your mobile device.”

Honeymoon feature

Santorini gets 90% of her income from tourism.

Santorini gets 90% of her income from tourism.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

In fact, the privacy model that made Santorini so successful as a honeymoon destination can work for her.

“Instead of mega hotels with large public spaces, most Santorini suites have private entrances and sunlit terraces with a dedicated pool or whirlpool, which is cleaned and disinfected with chlorine every day,” Filippidis says. “Breakfast is served in your room, not in the dining hall. This is perfect for guests who want to feel safe. Unlike large resorts, we don’t have to put perspex screens between sun loungers.”

Greece is not alien to financial crises, but in the 1950s and 1960s, and most recently in 2008, it has always been able to see mass tourism as a way to revive the economy.

The paradox of the current situation is that tourism, once solved, is the problem now.

In his speech in Santorini, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said he wants Greece to be safe, but he also knows that 20% of Greek citizens working in tourism and industry contribute up to 30% of the economy, as he needs islands like Santorini to get a lucrative summer and even Prosperous fall.

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