Greece roughly receives the same number of tourists as Macao; around 32 million per year. Tourism in Greece represents about 20% of GDP and, directly or indirectly, provides a job to one Greek in four: easily imagined is the distress felt when this number fell to 10 million in the wake of the financial crisis in 2010.
Yet, because of the sheer pace of the rebound, people are starting to see (and feel) the negative effects the return of mass tourism is having not only on everyday life but also on tourism itself. Striking a balance between the imperative of “sustainable tourism” and the dangers of “overtourism” has become a necessity, and this despite a whopping 23% national rate of unemployment.
The stress imposed by this massive influx of tourists is even more revealing in the tiny islands of the Cyclades, and especially in the one from which I write: Santorini. When I first visited the iconic caldera exactly 40 years ago, one would necessarily arrive at the small pier of Skala from where one would have to climb 580 steep serpentine steps leading to Thira, the island’s capital, 260m up the cliff under an excruciating sun. Mules were available, but mainly to carry backpacks.
Now there is a cable car, and even though the mules are available for the occasional selfie, only the small connecting vessels from gigantic cruising ships make it to the old pier: island hoppers riding regular ferries arrive at Athinios, the new port, from which a road gives easy assess to the whole island. In short, one does not “deserve” his or her stay in Santorini anymore and during day (and sunset) time it has become nearly impossible to stroll along the dedalum of the tortuous vennels of Oia overlooking the volcano without bumping into packs of fellow visitors.
The marbled ridge path going from Thira to Firostefani feels like a shopping road of Mongkok on a busy Saturday afternoon and every single house has been turned into either a shop, a bar or a hotel — “boutique hotel” carries its true meaning in Santorini! Still small in size — one floor only — all are painted in immaculate white and the occasional marine blue to safeguard the visual coherence of the whole. Yet, Santorini’s mayor Nikolaos Zorzos laments that “11% of the island has been concreted over.”
Two million visitors on a tiny island of 76 square kilometers is proving too much for the 25,000 inhabitants: not only the traffic jams and the overcrowding are proving problematic, but also the fast-rising water and energy bills. Thus Zorzos, among other things, has taken the bold decision to limit the number of cruise visitors per day to just 8,000, down from as much as 18,000 in the past. Zorzos also illustrates the imbalance of the development of the tourism industry by highlighting that there are now 1,000 hotel rooms per sq. kilometer in Santorini, more than any nearby island. I wonder what the Aegean mayor would have to say about Macao where the supposedly “green lung” of Coloane shrinks by the day and the number of hotel rooms stands at 1,250 per sq. kilometer. Are problems different depending on longitude?
In the 2017 report “Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourist Destinations” by the World Travel and Tourism Council, challenges posed by overtourism appear to be the same everywhere: alienation of local residents, degradation of tourist experiences, overloading of infrastructure, damage to nature and threats to culture and heritage. Among the measures recommended by the WTTC, of which Macao is part, figures the capping of daily visitors. Macao might not be as bad as Venice, but it does belong to the category of hotspots with the highest risk of over-crowding, similar to Dubrovnik where visitor numbers per day has already been capped even beyond the recommendations by UNESCO, from which Macao derives its World Heritage status.