Koufonissi stands up to pressure of increased tourism

It is just a speck in the Aegean, one of those you don’t discover on your own. This tiny island used to be a destination for those looking for something special and out of the way. To the delight of visitors who had heard about it from friends and acquaintances, Koufonissi was one of the earthly paradises. With deep blue water, small natural rock pools, the freshest of fish and gracious inhabitants, it was a place cars had no reason to approach. The locals recall the days before 1985, when the island did not yet have electricity mains, when the ship would leave blocks of ice every two weeks to keep the ice cream cold, and the entire island had just one tractor and two cars. The main form of transport on the two remote islands of Pano and Kato Koufonissi (known together as Koufonissia) was the donkey. Now those days have gone forever. In those days, the approach to the Lesser Cyclades, which also include the islands of Donousa, Schinoussa, Irakleia and Amorgos, was via Naxos on the well-known Skopelitis, which traveled the Greek seas for decades before being replaced by its namesake, a more modern ship. The ship used to travel from Piraeus only twice a week, and the trip took 12 hours. Now two ships, one conventional and one high-speed, ply the route several times a week, and there are frequent connections with other islands. Inevitably, tourists are starting to visit in larger numbers. Pano Koufonissi, which is experiencing a peak in tourism development, is a tiny islet of about 4 square kilometers. It takes just three hours to walk from one end of it to the other. Perhaps that is why the 450 permanent residents and the visitors who knew the island before it acquired creature comforts are annoyed to see so many cars, especially large jeeps. The island is almost flat and nobody needs a four-wheel drive to get around it. Vehicles kick up sand, irritating the older visitors and changing the character of the island, they say. There isn’t a single asphalt road on the island. After all, there is no need for one. The beaches are grouped together on the southwest side of the island and linked by a dirt road that goes through the fields. The Italida beach is named after an Italian woman who bought the land near the beach some years ago. The Palm Tree is named after the taverna of the same name with rented rooms, which was the first business on the island. Gala, Pori and Pisina are the other beaches on the island. Kato Koufonissi is large but practically deserted, with only three permanent residents, but it is worth visiting for the superb Venetsanou taverna. Captain Costas makes the trip every day, as well as circling Pano Koufonissi and making a trip to Keros, now barren and deserted but once a significant center of Cycladic culture. Of this cluster of islands, Pano Koufonissi is the most interesting. A bird’s eye view of it would reveal all the elements that make it unique – the beaches with their crystal-clear water and golden sand, and Hora, the only village on the island. But no paradise remains intact forever. When the Palm Tree’s owner, Dimitris Mavros, decided to start a business 25 years ago, there were no more than 10-15 tourists on the island. Alongside it, the campsite that opened around the same time attracted a few young people who would gather on the beach in the evening for wine and guitar music. Free camping was common and the other locals were engaged in fishing and farming. Now 1,200 rooms have been built and many fear for their earthly paradise. The new wave of tourists are Scandinavians, young people who want be alone and people seeking a break from the rowdy clubs and trendy restaurants of Myconos and Santorini.