A Call To Arms For Sustainable Tourism

Date: 04.05.2018 / By Nikos Fotakis / / Comments (0)

Imagine being in Santorini, perched on a balcony in Oia overlooking the cliff, a glass of asirtiko in hand, waiting to see what is, arguably, the most photographed sunset in Greece and one of the most lauded in the world. Now imagine being surrounded by thousands of people; a noisy army of tourists, swamping the little iconic village’s small laneways destroying the experience for everyone, themselves included.

Michael Ermogenis says that this is already happening. A management consultant who has been living in Oia for more than a decade after having spent 35 years in Melbourne, Mr Ermogenis is the president of the Citizens of Oia Association.

“We are active citizens who are concerned about the various issues that affect the community,” he says, stressing that, at the moment, there is no bigger issue than overcrowding and capacity management.

“On any given day in summer, you could have between two and eight, if not 10 large cruise ships in Santorini; along with the ferries that fly every 15 minutes, connecting us with Athens and the other islands, we can easily have an influx of 50,000 people over two days,” he says.

“Even if a quarter of those wants to visit Oia at once, we get this endless stream of people with buses and vans everywhere that take people on excursions, and it becomes total chaos.”

This observation does not only reflect the experience of residents longing for some peace, but also that of many visitors to the picturesque village.

“People leave Santorini and their experience was nothing like what they had dreamt when they first planned their holiday there. There are tourists who come to Oia to stay for three or four days at a hotel and if it’s one on the cliffside, they may be paying around €300-500 per night. And then, there are the visitors who are here on a cruise and come to Oia for a couple of hours; several thousands of them come by bus and they absolutely flood the streets, making it impossible for anyone to casually walk around and do shopping or sightseeing.”

Identifying a problem is one thing, but the real question is whether anything can be done about it.

“We have asked the cruise lines to better plan the scheduling for cruise ship arrivals many times, so that there are two ships arriving per day, instead of having none one day and then eight the next,” says Mr Ermogenis.

“For a long time, they refused to even consider this, but now they’ve reached an agreement with the local government; that doesn’t mean that they’re going to keep it.”

If cruise lines are one army Citizens of Oia have to fight against, there’s another, even powerful one: “[It’s] the modern-day plague which is called Airbnb,” says Mr Ermogenis.

“The impact of Airbnb on local communities in iconic destinations hasn’t even begun to sink in,” he notes, describing how “anyone who has a spare room” rents it out.
“The impact of that is that the locals can’t find anything to rent,” he explains, saying that this has primarily affected the hospitality sector itself.

“If you have a hotel with 20 rooms, you would need a minimum of 10 staff; where are they going to stay? The owner who used to rent the room at €400 a month, now makes €300 a night; they are not going to rent to the wait staff who are coming to work, they are going to rent it out to tourists and this creates all kinds of problems from an employment perspective.”

And it is not only Airbnb. “Tourism is now largely managed or run by multinationals,” says Mr Ermogenis, stating the examples of websites like Expedia or, that control most online bookings.

“They are just doing their business, they don’t care about the effect they have on the community and they will not listen to one village. But if we have a coalition of 10 or 20 of the most popular destinations in the world, they cannot, and will not, ignore us,” he says.

This is how the Eastern Mediterranean Coalition was formed, with the participation of Gruppo 25 Aprile, an organisation representing the citizens of Venice. The coalition was expanded to include Dubrovnik, Corfu, Crete and Ibiza.

“They too have exactly the same problems,” says Mr Ermogenis. “The bottom line is we need to talk with a single voice. Unless we manage to turn mass, unplanned tourism into sustainable tourism, we are facing the risk of turning into Disneyland. No-one would visit a Greek island if it started to look like Disneyland. They want to see the little houses, they want to see the local community, the people going about their lives; it’s part of the experience. The minute you turn that into a theme park, all that disappears.”

The answer for the coalition is to apply a model of sustainable tourism, with a focus on the protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage.

“Sustainable tourism is a very well-documented management model, there are best practices that have been documented for years,” says Mr Ermogenis.

“To a large extent they’re not well executed, because it’s too hard for politicians to implement these practices. In Greece at least we have not received support from Athens, even though tourism is a major – if not THE biggest factor in the Greek economy. As far as they’re concerned, cruises are good for Greece because they bring money. We don’t see it that way. For us quantity is not the answer, quality is the answer; in other words we don’t want to have 20,000 visitors in one day, we would much rather have people who would want to come to Santorini, stay a couple of days, learn about the island, see the island properly and enjoy it, rather than people who come here for an hour, walk around and then say that they’ve been to Santorini, putting a tick on a list.”

The first step is to use their network to create awareness, with an aim of gaining the attention of the European Union to create legislation that will protect these destinations from the dramatic changes of the tourism industry.

“Our communities are centuries old, if not thousands of years old. They were not built with mass tourism in mind.”

As far as Oia is concerned, Citizens of Oia are planning to roll out an initiative to raise awareness to friends of the iconic destination from all over the world, “people who’ve been to Oia several times, they love the place and they want to see it protected,” says Mr Ermogenis.

“Apart from the Acropolis, Oia is probably the most photographed place in Greece,” he stresses.

“I think there are more photos of Oia circulating on social media daily than there are of the Acropolis and other places of Greece. In other words, we are the face of Greece. Given that the government is not willing to accept the fact that Oia should have special status, we are trying to do whatever we can to make sure that the face of Greece is protected.”

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