By Michael Ermogenis*
Two of the most familiar sights for those lucky enough to live on the cliffs of the Santorini caldera are the sunrise arrivals of large cruise ships and the sunset procession as they leave. Both are beautiful to watch.
At sunrise they silently glide into what is the deepest and surely the most beautiful natural port in the world. Many onboard are awake to experience this “once in a lifetime” view of mythical Santorini from their cabins or the top-decks aboard these often-enormous ships.
At sunset or dusk, it’s even more spectacular as the passengers line the decks of the ships taking photos and having one last look at the wonder that is Santorini, as they majestically sail out of the caldera… their last glimpse being the spectacular sight of Oia glowing in the dark.
Both of these events are elegantly silent and beautiful to watch, film or photograph. They are the two wonderful bookends of a cruise ship visit to Santorini. The problem for the island (and the visitors), are not these bookend events … it is what happens in between.
The problems begin as soon as these passengers (at times numbering more than 15,000) get off their ships and set foot on the island. It’s a process which can take up to three hours during peak season, as everyone must be collected by local launches which can only carry only so many at a time.
These boats feverishly carry passengers to the old and new ports, as well as all the way to Oia (which is actually illegal, but they do it anyway). At the old port, visitors must wait their turn to take the chair-lift up to the main town, and this too can often take over an hour.
Very few of them will brave climbing the three hundred steps into Fira on foot.
Before they have even arrived on Santorini, cruise passengers have been sold “excursions” for their few hours on this fantasy island. The vast majority of them will have bought an excursion that includes a “visit to Oia.”
Why? Because they have all seen the incredible photos of this magnificent village perched on the cliff face… but there is another reason. It’s free! Free that is, for the cruise lines, the tour operators, and the bus operators which make millions every year from exploiting the extraordinary beauty of this tiny, iconic village.
On the other side of the island there are historicall priceless ancient ruins, thousands of years old… but the cruise lines don’t like to mention Akrotiri, because it costs money to get in. Oia is free, leaving them with a far better margin on every excursion sold. In other words, the passengers are paying for something cruise lines and tour operators get for free.
The result is chaos at the ports and chaos in the buses, which are all trying to get to Oia on roads which were built for little more than two donkeys walking side-by-side. Thankfully the new road on the northern coast of the island is now open and can accommodate the buses invading Oia daily.
Upon arrival the huge buses make themselves at home at Oia’s PUBLIC car park. Often, there are more than 70-80 buses by 9 AM. This space was never given to them… they have simply taken it, and claimed it as their own.
If Santorini citizens try to park there, they are warned that they will find their cars “damaged” when they return. All this from people (bus drivers) who are parking there for free… in OUR parking lot!
So the daily invasion begins around 8.30-9.00 AM. Thousands of people are led around by often non-licensed tour-guides by various businesses to make sure they walk the unsuspecting tourists in front of their shops, so as to buy anything from peanuts to cheap (made in China) fridge magnets.
The pace is almost frantic as they are only in Oia for a couple of hours, so it becomes like a cattle stampede. The best photographic spots are taken over by people who behave like groups of little kids fighting over candy. It’s the invasion of the lemmings.
Then it;s time for another stampede, because it’s time to go back to the buses again. Not only is there is no time to stop and enjoy what is arguably the most picturesque village in the world, but there is no time even to shop, to look around or discover the real beauty of the village.
They will take as many photos as they can, climb on roof tops, on any church they can get access to in order to get their “fantasy” photo, ring church bells “for fun”, and leave us their pre-purchased plastic water bottles. They throw their ice cream wrappers almost anywhere, complain about the amount of ‘steps’ the village has… and get back on their bus to leave (causing another chaotic traffic jam as their buses leave the village).
It is a daily nightmare for Oia — and surely it cannot be a great experience for the visitors either. But who cares? The cruise lines and all the tour operators have already made their millions… who cares what the visitor experience is like?
There is no way you are going to find these details in any of the brochures, or the spiel passengers get onboard. Modern cruises are a commodity game… its all about numbers and taking the largest possible percentage of a passenger’s spending money.
They use a variation of the “laser printer” business model. They almost give you the cruise ticket for free and proceed to rip you off once you are onboard (the “cheap printer and the expensive ink refills” scheme).
This of course is only the tip of the iceberg for Santorini. Cruise ships are a huge problem, but by no means the entire problem this unique island faces daily. In peak season there is a flight to Santorini almost every 20 minutes and many fast ferry arrivals from Athens and other islands, bringing thousands of additional people daily.
Santorini’s port, which is pathetically inadequate to cope with even a fraction of the current daily influx, is total chaos. And the airport is often worse. It is tiny, outdated and almost entirely unfit for its purpose.
Then there is the biggest cancer affecting Santorini daily. Despite a so-called “cap” on daily arrivals by boat of 8,000 individuals, certain operators have found loopholes which allow them to bring an additional 5,000-6,000 people daily from Crete and other islands, under the guise of “day-trip excursions”… which makes them different from cruise ship passengers.
In other words… these “wise guys” have found a way to rip off 6,000 people every day, promising the experience of a lifetime on Santorini. These lemmings (mostly Russians from Crete) arrive after midday, in the searing heat, and are treated much worse than the cruise passengers.
Led by fake guides, they are told where to go and what to see (based on who has paid them more money to bring the lemmings to his shop so they can buy tourist junk). They are clueless about the village they visit, and they do not have time to stop and enjoy even a coffee. They literally flood the island for three to four hours and then they are shipped like cattle back where they came from.
But once again…who cares at that point? The operators have made their millions. If there is an overcrowding problem on Santorini, it’s caused by these day-trippers and the tour operators who bring them here daily. It is a shameful scam.
Amid all this daily chaos there are people who are on a holiday of a lifetime. They have come to their dream destination to soak up the incomparable beauty of Santorini, to explore the island, to taste the wines and the glorious food, to dine at romantic waterfront tavernas and to watch the most incredible sunsets in the world. They often pay a small fortune to have a room with a caldera view… because it has been a dream for them. Its not about providing an experience for the rich… its about providing an unforgettable experience for people who have chosen to come and stay on the island in order to enjoy it, to understand it and allow it to change them as people. But these visitors are almost trampled by the hordes of day trippers.
They can’t take a leisurely walk, enjoy window shopping or even take a decent photo, because the lemmings have already invaded everything. The island that has the potential to provide incredible visitor experiences is being forced to provide pedestrian, almost ‘take-away’ level experiences, because that’s what suits certain players.
Social media was the turbo charge for Santorini and many other iconic destinations. It changed everything. Santorini is the second most photographed place in Greece (after the Acropolis), but in real terms, it has by far the largest social media footprint. Once upon a time people used to see 5-10 photos of Santorini a year (mainly in fashion and travel magazines & brochures). Now they see thousands of photos of the island on Instagram alone… on a weekly basis. It’s stunning landscape fuels the imagination and demand is increasing almost exponentially. But the island’s facilities and infrastructure remain the same or, in fact, are degrading daily.
Given the current state of the national Greek government (chaotic mess would be the understatement of the century) and the inability of local governments to act independently, it’s time to say ‘Houston… we have a problem’. Furthermore… given that Santorini is the global face of Greece in so many ways… it is not just this island’s problem. It is a national problem.
Is there a solution? We believe so…
* 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