SANTORINI – Oia, 7 a.m.: The shops of this small traditional village on the rim of Santorini’s caldera are closed and just a handful of people wander its cobbled streets. A couple step onto the domed roof of the house below as a photographer gives them instructions. They kiss, embrace and change poses against the backdrop of the Aegean Sea.
Further away, another photographer is instructing a bride who is standing beside the blue dome of a church. She grabs a rope and pulls, sounding the bells. A municipal cleaner utters expletives when he discovers sacks of debris dumped in an alley.
Oia, 9 a.m.: The village starts to stir as the first group of tourists arrives. They stand in the small square at the village’s entrance for a brief introduction from their guide. A second group arrives, then a third, a fourth and a fifth. Within an hour the narrow cobbled streets are packed with hundreds of people inching along at a snail’s pace. You don’t want to think about what would happen in a stampede.
At the village’s entrance, it’s complete mayhem, as 10 or more tour coaches are crammed into the small parking lot (with engines running to keep the air-conditioning working), as more trundle up the snaking road, hitting a traffic jam just a few hundred meters from the village. A few courier service workers take it upon themselves to direct the vehicles, as there’s hardly a policeman to be found anywhere but the airport or the local precinct.
Athinios Port, 11 a.m.: Tender boats keep bringing more people onto the island from three cruise ships anchored outside Santorini’s port. The cable car up to Fira is nearly empty, as the majority will be riding up on coaches.
The first commuter ferry of the day arrives from Crete, unleashing some 1,500 to 2,000 people. Only a few have luggage and almost all head to sundry coaches and vans waiting for them here and there. Some wear bracelets indicating the all-inclusive hotel they’re staying at. The coaches are loaded and the streets become jammed again.
Santorini has been experiencing an unprecedented explosion in tourism since a lull in 2011-12, the likes of which is comparable only perhaps to Myconos. It is not all good news, however, as the southeast Aegean island is struggling with problems usually associated with big cities, like traffic jams and water shortages.
Rising demand has resulted in constant construction, so that the once-idyllic landscape is becoming as congested as Attica. Much of this construction, meanwhile, is defined by violations both large and small, as Santorini’s woefully understaffed zoning authority is responsible for six islands.
Rising demand has also resulted in a proliferation of Airbnb-style short-term rentals, doubling the number of available beds on the island – together with water and power consumption, and waste volume.
The extension of the tourism season, an enviable achievement in some respects, added more than 15,000 permanent residents to the island’s population within five years, mostly people who work in tourism services.
All of these workers, along with the island’s civil servants, teachers, bank employees and other locals, have a dwindling pool of accommodation options, as the short-term rental sector swallows up property after property.
Add to this the annual several thousand visitors who come to the island for just a few hours, and you get a Santorini that has reached saturation point – if it hasn’t already passed it.
“In 2012 we had 3.3 million overnight stays and in 2017 5.5 million. We’ve had an explosion in tourism and this is creating problems,” says Santorini Mayor Nikos Zorzos.
“The primary issue is that the private sector moves at a much faster pace than the state. The second issue is that 18 percent of Santorini has been built on – that percentage is higher than Attica’s. I believe that Santorini has peaked in terms of tourism activity and that we have to do everything in our power to stay on top.”
Santorini has been struggling with overcrowding for the last two years, yet arrivals just keep increasing. Cruise visits are on the rise after a brief slump in 2011-12 and the season now stretches from early spring to early winter. Turnover is estimated at more than 1 billion euros a year, but this comes at a heavy cost and discussion regarding the island’s ability to cope has become essential.
“Our infrastructure is under incredible pressure. Water consumption has doubled and there has been a huge rise in demand for power. We had a blackout in 2013 when demand was at 32.5 MW for the peak period of around two months. Last year we needed to produce 47 MW for four months. But we also have urban problems like traffic jams,” says Zorzos.
“Santorini’s comparative advantage, the land itself, is being used up profligately. If the presidential decree of 2012 limiting construction had been strictly implemented, we would not be in the situation today. But we don’t have the supervisory mechanism for this to happen. There is one civil engineer in the zoning authority and just 29 officers in the local police force,” adds the mayor.
Zorzos explains that he was expecting 41 trainee officers to be dispatched to Santorini this summer, but only 10 or 15 will end up coming because of the accommodation shortage. The Defense Ministry has a number of houses near the airport that could have served this purpose, but has instead earmarked them as holiday homes for the air force.
The accommodation shortage is a serious problem for many professionals here.
“The island has become one huge hotel,” says Karolina Rikaki, an English teacher at the Emborio Middle School.
“We can’t find housing. Colleagues coming at the start of the academic year in September cannot find anything because almost every home is being rented to tourists by the day. I had one colleague two years ago who came from Serres with three children. The only accommodation she could find was a one-bedroom house, which she paid 450 euros a month for – an incredible amount. The kindergarten teacher was kicked out of her house in April and had to apply for special permission to sleep at the school until the end of term on June 15.”
The huge short-term rental boom is the main culprit behind the housing shortage. “We estimate that there may be more beds in such accommodation that in hotels,” laments Manolis Karamolengos, the head of Santorini’s association of hoteliers. “This is the biggest problem on the island right now. You find people to work for you but there’s nowhere for them to stay, so they don’t come.”
He adds that many big hotels and other tourism business are starting to build staff housing, but the public sector has still found no solution and “keeps asking the private sector for help.”
Another issue is the rise in the general population. “Santorini has changed a lot in the past few years,” says Nikos Nomikos, head of the island’s professional and commercial association.
“It used to be the case that some 20,000 people working here for the summer season would leave in the winter and go back home. All of a sudden, though, they started staying, and that means that we went from some 10,000 permanent residents to 25,000. And they have cars, need schools for their kids and produce waste.”
The demand for accommodation has spurred rampant construction as well. “If you look out on the island from a hill, you can’t really see the boundaries between different villages anymore. Hotels are also being built all over the stretch from Akrotiri to the lighthouse [on the southern coast],” says Rikaki.
Kathimerini saw new construction sites even inside the crater of the caldera, where such activity is forbidden. The issue is dividing the local community.
“We can’t build up the entire island; it’s got to stop somewhere,” says Karamolengos. “But it’s hard to have this conversation with the locals, when visitor numbers are so high. We are in a heyday right now and every bed is booked. But what about tomorrow?”
The problems are exacerbated by day-tourists arriving on cruise ships and commuter ferries even though a cap of 8,000 arrivals a day has been put on the former.
“In my opinion, there isn’t a problem of saturation, there’s a problem of management,” says Nomikos. “There are four ships a day from Crete with 5,000 visitors, there’s another 1,000 from Naxos and about 4,000 to 5,000 from the cruises. And they all want to see the sunset at Oia. How many people can Oia hold? There are sunset views in Fira and Akrotiri as well.”
“I wrote to the association of cruise ship owners recently asking for their help in managing the flow of visitors to the island,” says Zorzos.
“If they don’t, I will have to take unilateral action. I will be there to close streets if necessary. I am saying this publicly because sometimes enough is just enough,” adds Santorini’s mayor.