What happened on Santorini when the tourist ‘machine’ stopped

(CNN) – There is a reason why Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis flew to Santorini earlier this month, when he wanted to announce the reopening of his country in tourism.

When the evening sun begins to set behind the edge of an extinct volcano of which the island is an integral part, it is one of the most romantic and beautiful photo opportunities on the planet.

It is a view that helps make Santorini in Greece the most visited island with up to two million tourists a year – many come on giant cruise ships that can usually be seen parked in the middle of a natural bay below.

The island will once again welcome international visitors by plane from July 1, but warnings about the coronavirus mean their numbers will be much smaller than before and cruises will not return soon.

And while that means the brutal time ahead for some companies, others on the island are enjoying the look of a new era, one in which the beauty of Santorini can flourish without turning into a “machine that just made money”.

Double hit

The Covid-19 blockade left Santorini abandoned.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

The cover-up effect of Covid has already been dramatic for a destination that relies on tourism for 90% of its revenue. In the case of Santorini, the lock came in as a double blow, as the island has recently started opening its hotels and restaurants all year round.

During this forced isolation, only the population of Santorini was allowed on the island. Guests from the mainland had to return home and no new tourists were allowed. However, the drastic suspension worked. No cases of potentially fatal disease have been diagnosed in Santorini.

Although the island reopens, everyone is cautious. Personal protection will not only benefit guests.

“On Santorini, no one wants to catch Covid,” says Joy Kerluke, who runs Dmitri’s Tavern in Ammoudi Bay. “I have to say that with the lock we felt safe on Santorini because we had no cases and no one came here. I think we all enjoyed the scenery and the silence for a while.”

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

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“We expect 15% of visitors compared to previous years,” says George Filippidis, general manager of the Andronis Suites Hotel in Santorini. “The economic damage will be huge. We will own at a loss by 2020, but we want to open up by offering employment to our staff and providing support to a local community that is completely dependent on tourism.”

Quiet and unkind

Cruise ships with 3,000 people are not expected to return in 2020.

Cruise ships with 3,000 people are not expected to return in 2020.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

The complete absence of visitors enabled the completion of several large projects. “The new terminal at the airport is now operational,” says Filippidis. “The new road connecting Oia with the airport and part of the port of Athinios has also been completed, so touring the island will be much easier.”

For a destination that is left with only Venice with its cruise ships, the good news is the fact that very few of these huge vessels – if any – will return in 2020. With each ship that flew up to 3,000 people in minibuses, these floating hotels were clogged with Santorini’s roads.

“The arrival of the cruise has not been confirmed yet,” says Filippidis. “Even if at some point they start, it will be very limited.”

At Dmitrijeva Taverna, one of the few coastal restaurants offering an uninterrupted view of the famous sunset, Santorini, Kerluke has to spread tables and prepare personal protective equipment.

“We will have fewer tables along the waterfront, which is difficult for us because we already have a small tavern,” she says. “And we will wear masks and gloves. There will be antiseptics for our customers as well.”

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

“Those who choose to come to Santorini will have a nice time,” she says. “He will see Santorini, as quiet and awkward as ever.”

‘Strange weather’

The locals reflect Santorini’s future.

The locals reflect Santorini’s future.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

Along with tourism, the other foundations of Santorini’s economy are vineyards. Assyrtiko’s unique Santorini wines are exported worldwide, and most of the island’s 18 vineyards are open to visitors.

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By now, the 2019 harvest should be in restaurants and supermarkets across the island, but Petros Vamvakousis, manager of the Venetsanos winery, says the lock has hampered distribution.

“Our 2019 harvest remains inside stainless steel tanks and barrels,” he says. “It was supposed to charge between February and April, but the five people who would do it had to stay home. Now we’re trying to make up for it.

“We usually produce 50,000 bottles a year, but we rely on exports, and they’re close to zero right now. Our distributor in America has informed us that although restaurants in the U.S. remain closed, there is no market for Santorini wine in America.”

Like many wineries, Venetsanos was able to make money from tastings and tours even before the crisis. Cut dramatically into cliffs overlooking the port of Athinios, the winery has a beautiful terrace where snacks are served, but Vamvakousis says the number of people who can be accommodated from now on will be limited to four or six per table.

“We live in a strange time,” he says. “Everything on the island is reminiscent of winter. Many restaurants, cafes and hotels are closed. It is summer now and it is extremely strange that Santorini is so peaceful and lonely.”

Stopping the ‘machine’

In recent years, Santorini has been the subject of complaints about excessive tourism.

In recent years, Santorini has been the subject of complaints about excessive tourism.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

Vamvakousis says he is optimistic that the hard days will return again, but believes the forced fall will help a quick re-examination of the island’s future.

“Santorini is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but I’m sure locking was helpful,” he says. “He stopped a machine that was just making money and didn’t care about the environment. Now is the right time to think about what’s wrong with Santorini. We have a right to protection, but we have no right to destroy.”

While money will be a big issue in 2020, it’s not all about disrupting the tourist season disaster. Gill Rackham, a native of Britain, who has run Lotza Restaurant and Oia Old Houses Apartments with her husband Vasilis for more than 30 years, sees mixed blessings.

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“About a month ago, our bookings in July looked good, about 75% occupancy, but now it’s reduced to 20% and falling,” Rackham says. “But I guess there will be a winner in this disaster. Santorini has been given a break to rest again … no crowds, no traffic jams … no cruises.”

Rackham noted that “there are several taverns on the beaches of Perivolas and Perrissa and it runs, but most for local Greeks and Athens! Owners of other places start coming back and opening on July 1, which is the expected date for international flights”.

Some hotels have taken a three-month lockout time to think about how they communicate with guests. “We will offer our services digitally,” says George Filippidis of Andronis.

“You’ll be able to sign up online, order cocktails, book a cruise in the azure Aegean waters and check when the trip is over, simply using your mobile device.”

Advantage for honeymoon

Santorini earns 90% of its tourism revenue.

Santorini earns 90% of its tourism revenue.

ARIS MESSINIS / AFP via Getty Images

Indeed, the model of privacy that made Santorini so successful as a honeymoon destination could work well in its favor.

“Instead of huge hotels with large public spaces, most Santorini apartments have private entrances and sunny balconies with a dedicated pool or jacuzzi that is cleaned and chlorinated daily,” says Filippidis. “Breakfast is served in your room, not in the dining room. This is ideal for guests who want to feel safe. Unlike large resorts, we don’t have to place perspective screens between the loungers.”

Greece is no stranger to financial crises, but in the 1950s and 60s, and as recently as in 2008, mass tourism could always be seen as a revival of the economy.

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

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

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