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What happened in Santorini when the tourist ‘machine’ stopped

What happened in Santorini when the tourist 'machine' stopped
Barbara C. Arroyo

(CNN) – Greece Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis has a reason to go to Santorini earlier this month, when he wants to announce that his country has reopened for tourism.

When the evening sun starts to dip behind the edge of an extinct volcano, the island is part of it, one of the most romantic and beautiful photo opportunities on the planet.

It is a sight to see Santorini becoming Greece’s most visited island, receiving over two million tourists a year – many on cruise ships, usually parked in the middle of the lower natural bay.

The island is expected to welcome international visitors by plane once again from July 1, but warnings about coronavirus means their numbers are much lower than before and cruise ships will never return.

While that may mean a cruel time for some businesses, others on the island are enjoying the prospect of a new era in which Santorini’s beauty can thrive without turning into a “money-making machine.”

Double blow

The Kovid-19 lockdown left Santorini desolate.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP by Getty Images

The impact of the Covid Lockdown is already dramatic for a destination that relies on 90% tourism. In the case of Santorini, the island has recently been hit with a double-lockdown as its hotels and restaurants open year-round.

During this forced solitude, only Santorini residents were allowed on the island. Guests from the mainland were forced to return home and no new tourists were allowed. However, a serious shutdown worked. Not a single case of life-threatening disease on Santorini has been confirmed.

Although the island is reopening, everyone is careful. Personal protection is not just for the benefit of guests.

“Nobody in Santorini likes to hold Covid,” says Joy Kerlook, who runs the Dmitry Taverna at Ammoudi Bay. “Since we had no cases with the lockdown and no one came here, we must say we felt safe on Santorini. We all enjoyed the scenery and the quiet.”

Santorini, with its blue-domed churches and thousand-foot cliffs, looks exactly the same, but it is unusually empty.

“We expect 15% more visitors compared to previous years,” said George Filipidis, general manager of the Andronis Suites Hotel in Santorini. “The economic loss is huge. We will work with the loss in 2020, but we want to open up so we can provide employment to our staff and support the local community that is totally dependent on tourism.”

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Quiet and crowded

Cruise ships traveling up to 3 thousand people are not expected to return in 2020.

Cruise ships traveling up to 3 thousand people are not expected to return in 2020.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP by Getty Images

The complete lack of visitors allowed many major projects to be completed. “The new terminal at the airport is now operating,” says Filipidis. “The new highway connecting Oyan to the airport and the port of Athenaeus has also been completed, so it will be much easier to get around the island.”

For a second destination after Venice with cruise-ship problems, it is good news that very few – if any – of these enormous vessels will return in 2020. These floating hotels blocked the roads of Santorini, with each ship sending 3000 people into mini buses.

“Cruise ship arrivals have not yet been confirmed,” says Filipidis. “And if they start at some point it will be very limited.”

At Dimitri Taverna, one of the few quayside restaurants to offer an uninterrupted view of Santorini’s famous sunset, Kerluk has to empty the tables and prepare personal protective equipment.

“We have fewer tables along the quay, which is difficult for us because we already have a small tavern,” she said. “And we wear masks and gloves. Our customers are also antiseptic.”

Kerluk, who hails from Canada 25 years ago, says there are consolations.

“Those who decide to come to Santorini will have a lovely time,” she said. “They look at Santorie. It was quiet and crowded.”

‘Strange time’

Locals reflect on Santorini's future.

Locals reflect on Santorini’s future.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP by Getty Images

Apart from tourism, the other mainstay of Santorini’s economy is its vineyards. Santorini’s unique, Asirtiko-based wines are exported worldwide and the island’s 18 vineyards are open to visitors.

The 2019 vintage should be in restaurants and supermarkets across the island by now, but the lockdown has disrupted distribution, says Petros Wamwakousis, Venetzanos winery manager.

“Our 2019 vintage is inside stainless steel tanks and barrels,” he says. “It must have been bottled up between February and April, but the five who were doing this were supposed to be at home. Now we’re trying to catch up.

“Normally we produce 50,000 bottles a year, but we rely on exports, and these are currently close to zero. Our distributor in the US has told us that there is no market for Santorini wine in America, even though restaurants are closed.”

Like many wineries, the crisis has Venetzanos until it revenues through tasting and touring. Cut dramatically into the hills overlooking the port of Athenaeus, the winery has a beautiful terrace, where wine is served with snacks, but Vamvacoussis said the number of accommodations can now be limited to four or six per table.

“We are living in a strange time,” he says. “Everything about the island reminds me of winter. Many restaurants, cafes and hotels have closed. It’s summer now and Santorini is so quiet and lonely.”

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Stopping the ‘machine’

There have been complaints of overturism in Santorini in recent years.

There have been complaints of overturism in Santorini in recent years.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP by Getty Images

Wamvakowicz said he was hopeful that the busy days would return, but he believed the forced retreat would help revalue the island’s future.

“Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but I’m sure the lockdown helped,” he says. “This is the right time to think about what is wrong in Santorini. We have the right to protect, but we have no right to destroy.”

While money is going to be a big problem in 2020, not everything about disruptive tourism is a disaster. Britain’s Gil Rackham, who has been running the Lodza restaurant and Oya Old Houses apartments with her husband Vasilis for over 30 years, sees mixed blessings.

“About a month ago our July bookings were looking good, about 75% occupancy, but now it’s down to 20%,” says Rockham. “But my take is that there will be winners in this disaster. Santorini has been given a break to breathe again … No congestion, no traffic jam … no cruise ships.”

“There are some tavernas running along the shores of Perivolas and Perissa, but there are plenty of local Greeks and Athenian visitors!” Elsewhere, the owners have reopened on July 1, which is the due date for international flights. “

Some hotels have taken a three-month lockdown time to rethink how they treat guests. “We provide our services digitally,” says George Filipidis at Andronis.

“You can check online, order cocktails, book a cruise in Azure Aegean waters and check out when your trip is over by using your mobile device.”

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Honeymoon purpose

Santorini earns 90% of the revenue generated by tourism.

Santorini earns 90% of the revenue generated by tourism.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP by Getty Images

The privacy model that made Santorini a success as a honeymoon destination serves its purpose well.

“Instead of large hotels with large open spaces, most of Santorini’s suites have private entrances and sunlight balconies that have a separate pool or jacuzzi that can be cleaned and chlorinated every day,” says Filipidis. “Breakfast is served in your living room, not in the dining room. This is ideal for guests who want to be safe. Unlike large resorts, we don’t have to put Perspex screens between sun-loungers.”

Greece is no stranger to economic crises, but in the 1950s and 60s, and as of 2008, it has always seen mass tourism as a means of reviving the economy.

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

In his Santorini speech, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said Greece wants to be safe, but he knows that with 20% of Greek nationals working in tourism and the industry up to 30% economy, he wants islands like Santorini to have a long summer and a prosperous fall.

About the author

Barbara C. Arroyo

Barbara C. Arroyo

I'm a writer, editor and newsroom leader working at the intersection of tech and media, editorial and product, journalism and management. I am driven to transform our industry for the future, develop and mentor our people, build compassionate and innovative organizational cultures, and put readers and communities at the center of it all. I also have a love of storytelling and creative work, and refuse to pick one or the other.

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