The Traveller and the Tourist: A Tale of Discovery in Santorini



By Michael Ermogenis*

The terms ‘traveller’ and ‘tourist’ have such vastly different meanings: A traveller is a person seeking authentic experiences and tries to enrich and sustain the destination’s culture, heritage and environment. On the other hand, a tourist just follows the ‘herd’ to all the same inauthentic tourist traps, and often seeks the same comforts he enjoys at home, not interested in experiencing or learning about local history or culture.

Put simply a traveller has a ‘sense of place’, a tourist has no real sense of anything at all and relies on following the herd for guidance.

Travel is largely governed by a herd mentality. Much like the common expression used by Wall St Warriors, the “trend is your friend” – you can ride the trend and profit from it, as long as you know when to get off the gravy train.

All trends have a predictable trajectory and they usually end in a bubble. This is also true for travel in that the big players create stampedes based on what will make them the most money, not what will produce the best or most authentic experience for the traveller.

They often start ‘trends’, based on self-interest and profit and then watch as the herd builds up to a point to where the destination is spoiled by over exploitation.

A good example of this is the Greek island, Santorini. If you live in an iconic destination like Santorini you see this being played out on a daily/hourly basis. Millions of tourists will follow the herd to all the major travel sites, they will read reviews from other ‘herd’ members and plan their entire trip based on ‘herd’ recommendations. They will travel in groups or simply follow other groups. The herd mentality will lead the way…The Oia sunset being a classic example, but more on that later.

So, a tourist will come to Santorini having read the same 3-4 sites that all ‘tourists’ read for so-called ‘local information’ and reviews. Whilst they are here they will read or hear the same old things that every tourist will hear and be guided into doing: “You MUST visit this vineyard, you MUST do a caldera yacht cruise, you Must eat at this restaurant and you SIMPLY MUST go and see sunset in Oia.”

Their daily routine is so predictable you could map it out well in advance of their arrival – and they will not disappoint. In between all these ‘unique’ activities they will, of course, also try to find McDonalds, and look endlessly online for the location of the nearest Starbucks (which thankfully does not exist on this island).

Everything they will do is pre-packaged, pre-meditated, pre-arranged and about as original as anything with a ‘made in china’ label on it. They will simply follow the crowd, because human herd mentality says that its safer with the crowd; and why not? All of these people can’t be wrong…

But of course, they are!

Almost nothing you read in ‘herd’ travel sites is worth considering or taking seriously. A good traveller will find other ways of gathering ‘authentic’ information. He will not follow the crowds and he will certainly have a ‘sense of place’.

A good traveller visits a place and says ‘change me’. He doesn’t want to leave the same as he arrived. He wants the experience to change him, to enhance him. He will go out of his way to talk to locals, buy an old man a coffee at a traditional coffee shop in the least popular village, and ask questions. A good traveller will have read the history of the island before arriving, and he will know how and why locals do what they do and feel the way they feel about their past, present and future. He will show respect for the place, its people, and the local culture.

Whilst here, he will learn a lot more by engaging locals in conversation – not just simply asking for directions or recommendations (there is no site on the planet that can give you the information that an old man can give for the price of a coffee, even if he doesn’t speak your language).

But let us examine a classic example of a tourist Vs a traveller on Santorini. The tourist will make a point of ‘visiting Oia’ or ‘experiencing the village everyone talks about’ or ‘seeing an Oia sunset’.

To a tourist, this usually means arriving in Oia an hour or so before sunset, battling the herd for a parking spot for his 4-wheel motor bike and then following the herd towards the ‘best sunset spots’. There he will be the classic tourist and take photos of people taking photos of people who are taking photos of hundreds of other people. It would be like going to see the Mona Lisa at peak hour. Any thoughts of having a romantic sit down and watching the sunset alone with his loved one are pure fantasy.

Then he will leave with the herd having been stuck in traffic for an hour or more, because all tourists want to leave at once as soon as the show is over. The exodus from Oia is like a massive tide changing direction.

The traveller on the other hand, will have spoken to locals and he will have realised that the only way to really experience a real ‘Santorini Sunset’, one where you can see the whole island and its dramatic landscape, as well as the setting sun in the background is not from Oia at all!

The best spot on the island is in fact, Akrotiri. There he will sit quietly with his loved one, open a bottle of wine in total peace and have the experience of a lifetime. From Akrotiri, not only you will not have 2-3 thousand others to put up with, but you will also be able to see and photograph the entire caldera basking in the sublime light of the setting sun. It is absolutely breathtaking. From Oia all you can see is water, while from Akrotiri you can see the volcano and all the smaller islands as they change colour and throw shadows from the setting sun. It’s a totally different and quite cinematic experience.

Alas, the tourist sites told the herd that Oia is the place to go, so they will follow each other, they will fight for parking, fight for a tiny bit of space to watch the sunset and then fight for at least an hour trying to get out of the little village that was never built for such crowds.

In the end, the traveller will have the experience of a lifetime, while the tourist will have an experience that’s like going to a dis-organized theme park.

The moral of this story is simple: Take the advice of a local. Stop being a tourist & following the herd. Be a good traveller – it’s a much more authentic and life enhancing experience!

PS: The traveller will also go and see the magnificent beauty of Oia… but he will go early morning or after sunset, so he can soak up the incredible beauty without being pushed and shoved by the herd. He will go and talk to the locals when the crowds have gone and everyone can relax and enjoy being in arguably the most beautiful village in the world.

* Michael Ermogenis: Principle Management Consultant – over 25 years for Fortune 500 companies, Creator of ‘Customer Delight’ standard for enterprise customer service, Strategic advisor to Santorini Chamber of Commerce, Lived in Oia (full-time) for 12 years, Founding member of the Mediterranean Alliance (Venice, Oia, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Rhodes & Crete), Founding member of “Save Oia” Campaign