What happened on Santorini when the tourism ‘machine’ stopped

CNN  — 

There’s a reason Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis flew to Santorini earlier this month when he wanted to announce the reopening of his country to tourism.

When the evening sun begins to dip behind the rim of the extinct volcano of which the island forms part, it is one of the most romantic and beautiful photo opportunities on the planet.

It’s a view that helps make Santorini Greece’s most visited island, receiving up to two million tourists annually – many arriving on the gigantic cruise ships that can normally be seen parked in the middle of the natural bay below.

The island will be welcoming international visitors via airplane once again from July 1, but cautions over the coronavirus mean their numbers will be far fewer than before and the cruise ships won’t be returning any time soon.

And while that means a brutal time ahead for some businesses, others on the island are relishing the prospect of a new era, one in which Santorini’s beauty can flourish without being turned into a “machine that just created money.”

Double blow

The Covid-19 lockdown has left Santorini deserted.

The impact of a Covid lockdown has already been dramatic for a destination that relies on tourism for 90% of its income. In Santorini’s case, the lockdown came as a double blow as the island had recently begun to open its hotels and restaurants all year round.

During this enforced isolation only Santorini residents were allowed on the island. Guests from the mainland had to return home and no new tourists were allowed in. The drastic shutdown worked, however. Not one case of the potentially deadly disease was diagnosed on Santorini.

Although the island is opening up again, everyone is being careful. Personal protection will not just be for the benefit of guests.

“No one on Santorini wants to catch Covid,” says Joy Kerluke, who runs Dmitri’s Taverna at Ammoudi Bay. “I have to say that with the lockdown we felt safe on Santorini as we had no cases and nobody was coming here. I think we all enjoyed the scenery and the quietness for a while.”

Santorini, with its blue-domed churches and thousand-foot cliffs will look exactly the same, but it’s going to be unusually empty.

“We expect 15% percent of the visitors compared to previous years,” says George Filippidis, general manager of the Andronis Suites hotel on Santorini. “The economic damage will be huge. We will operate at a loss for 2020 but we want to open so that we offer employment to our staff, and support the local community that is wholly dependent on tourism.”

Quiet and uncrowded

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

The complete absence of visitors has allowed several major projects to be completed. “The new terminal at the airport is now operational,” says Filippidis. “The new road which connects Oia with the airport and part of Athinios port has also been completed, so getting round the island is going to be much easier.”

For a destination that was second only to Venice with its cruise-ship issues, the fact that very few of these enormous vessels – if any – will return in 2020 is considered to be good news. With each ship disgorging up to 3,000 people onto minibuses, these floating hotels clogged up Santorini’s roads.

“No cruise ship arrivals have been confirmed yet,” says Filippidis. “And even if they start at some point it will be very limited.”

At Dmitri’s Taverna, one of the few quayside restaurants to offer an uninterrupted view of Santorini’s famous sunset, Kerluke is having to space out the tables and prepare personal protection equipment.

“We will have fewer tables along the quay, which for us is hard as we have a small taverna already,” she says. “And we will wear masks and gloves. There will be antiseptic for our customers too.”

Kerluke, who arrived from Canada 25 years ago, says there are consolations.

“Those people who do decide to come to Santorini will have a lovely time,” she says. “They will see Santorini, quiet and uncrowded like it used to be.”

‘Strange time’

Locals have been reflecting on Santorini's future.

Apart from tourism, the other mainstay of Santorini’s economy has been its vineyards. The unique, Assyrtiko-based wines of Santorini are exported all over the world, and most of the island’s 18 vineyards are open to visitors.

By now the 2019 vintage should be in restaurants and supermarkets across the island, but Petros Vamvakousis, manager of Venetsanos Winery, says the lockdown has disrupted distribution.

“Our 2019 vintage remains inside stainless steel tanks and barrels,” he says. “It should have been bottled between February and April but the five people who would do this had to remain at home. Now we are trying to catch up.

“Normally we produce 50,000 bottles a year but we rely on exports, and these are close to zero at the moment. Our distributor in America informed us that while restaurants remain closed in the USA, there is no market for Santorini wine in America.”

Like many wineries, Venetsanos had until the crisis been able earn income through tastings and tours. Cut dramatically into the cliffs overlooking Athinios Harbour, the winery has a beautiful terrace where wine is served with snacks, but Vamvakousis says that the numbers of people who can be accommodated will be limited to four or six per table from now on.

“We are living in a strange time,” he says. “Everything about the island reminds me of winter. Many restaurants, cafés and hotels are closed. It is summer now and it is extremely strange for Santorini to be so quiet and lonely.”

Stopping the ‘machine’

Recent years have seen complaints about overtourism in Santorini.

Vamvakousis says he is optimistic that busy days will once again return, but believes the enforced downturn will help prompt a reevaluation of the island’s future.

“Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but I am sure that lockdown was helpful,” he says. “It stopped the machine that just created money and did not care about the environment. Now it is the right time to think what was wrong with Santorini. We have the right to protect, but we don’t have the right to destroy.”

While money is going to be a big issue in 2020, not everything about the interrupted tourist season is a disaster. Gill Rackham, originally from Britain, who has run Lotza restaurant and the Oia Old Houses apartments with her husband Vasilis for more than 30 years, sees mixed blessings.

“About a month ago our July bookings were looking good, approximately 75% occupancy, but now it’s down to 20% and falling,” says Rackham. “But my take is that within this catastrophe there will be winners. Santorini has been given a respite to breathe again… no crowds, no traffic jams… no cruise ships.”

Rackham has noticed that “on the beaches of Perivolas and Perrissa there are a few tavernas up and running but most for local Greeks and Athenian visitors! Elsewhere owners are starting to return to open up for 1 July, which is the expected date for international flights.”

Some hotels have taken the three-month lockdown time to rethink how they interact with guests. “We will be offering our services digitally,” says George Filippidis at Andronis.

“You’ll be able to check in online, order cocktails, book a cruise in the azure Aegean waters, and check out when your trip comes to an end, simply by using your mobile device.”

Honeymoon advantage

Santorini earns 90% of its income from tourism.

Indeed the privacy model that made Santorini so successful as a honeymoon destination could well work to its advantage.

“Rather than huge hotels with large public spaces, most of Santorini’s suites have private entrances and sunlit balconies with a dedicated pool or Jacuzzi that is cleansed and chlorinated daily,” says Filippidis. “Breakfast is served in your room, not in a dining hall. This is ideal for guests who want to feel safe. Unlike in big resorts we’re not having to put up perspex screens between sun-loungers.”

Greece is no stranger to financial crises, but in the 1950s and ’60s, and as recently as 2008, it has always been able to look to mass tourism as a means of reviving the economy.

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

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