What happened on Santorini when the tourism ‘machine’ stopped

(CNN) — There’s a reason Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis flew to Santorini early in the day this month when that 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 that the island forms part, it is among the most romantic and beautiful photo opportunities on the planet.

It’s a view that helps make Santorini Greece’s most visited island, receiving as much as two million tourists yearly — many arriving on the gigantic cruise ships that may normally be observed parked in the middle of the natural bay below.

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

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

Double blow

The Covid-19 lockdown has left Santorini deserted.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

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 lethal disease was diagnosed on Santorini.

Although the island is opening again, most people are being careful. Personal protection will not you should 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 will 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 cruise ships carrying up to 3,000 individuals are not anticipated to return in 2020.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The complete lack of visitors has allowed a few 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 which was second simply to Venice using its cruise-ship problems, the undeniable fact that very few of the enormous vessels — if any — will get back in 2020 is considered to be great 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, among 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.

Locals have now been reflecting on Santorini’s future.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Apart from tourism, the other mainstay of Santorini’s economy has been its vineyards. The unique, Assyrtiko-based wines of Santorini are exported around the world, and most of the island’s 18 vineyards are available 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 needs to have been bottled between February and April but the five those who would try this had to keep at home. Now we are wanting to catch up.

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

Like many wineries, Venetsanos had until the crisis been able earn money through tastings and tours. Cut significantly 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 those who can be accommodated will be limited by four or six per table from now on.

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

Stopping the ‘machine’

Recent years have seen complaints about overtourism in Santorini.

Recent years have seen complaints about overtourism in Santorini.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

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

“Santorini is among the most beautiful places on Earth, but I am certain that lockdown was helpful,” he says. “It stopped the machine that just created money and didn’t care about the environment. Now it is the right time and energy to think the thing that 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 huge issue in 2020, maybe 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 a lot more than 30 years, sees mixed blessings.

“About a month ago our July bookings were looking good, approximately 75% occupancy, nevertheless now it’s down seriously to 20% and falling,” says Rackham. “But my simply 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 lines.”

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 go back to open up for 1 July, which is the expected date for international flights.”

Some hotels took the three-month lockdown time and energy to rethink how they connect to guests. “We will be offering our services digitally,” says George Filippidis at Andronis.

“You’ll be able to sign in online, order cocktails, book a cruise in the azure Aegean waters, to check out when your trip wraps up, simply by making use of your mobile device.”

Honeymoon advantage

Santorini earns 90% of its income from tourism.

Santorini earns 90% of its income from tourism.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

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, nearly all of Santorini’s suites have private entrances and sunlit balconies with a separate pool or Jacuzzi that’s 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 hold perspex screens between sun-loungers.”

Greece is not any stranger to financial crises, but in the 1950s and ’60s, so when recently as 2008, it has always been in a position to look to mass tourism as a way 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 that he wants Greece to be safe but that 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 as well as a prosperous fall.