Responsible tourism in the Greek Islands

Greece has been on a crawl towards economic recovery since the financial crash of 2010. But what has that got to with your vacation to the Greek Islands? A lot, as it turns out. Income from tourism has been the lifejacket that islanders need to keep afloat, but it’s also the industry that keeps giving...and giving and giving. 

Santorini has joined Venice and Barcelona as one of the unfortunate stars of overtourism. Cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of tourists per day – far more heads than the people that live on the island. Barbecues and carelessly discarded cigarettes start fires that evacuate whole villages and demolish biodiverse woodland.

But managing tourism responsibly is absolutely possible and your vacation choices make a huge difference. From avoiding skyscraper-sized cruise ships to traveling out of high season, we lay out what you can do to support responsible tourism in the Greek Islands.


Greek Islands’ economy

Tourism is one of the top four industries in Greece; in the islands, it jumps up to the number one most valuable industry. It contributed over 50 billion Euros to the Greek economy between 2009 and 2016. The tourist industry grew nearly seven percent last year – more than 3.5 times faster than the wider economy. And it’s not stopping. In 2018, a record 33 million travelers arrived in Greece.
The World Tourism Council reported that tourism is set to account for almost one quarter of Greece’s GDP by 2028.
But the Greek Islands are still in the throes of a long financial crisis. Youth unemployment levels hover around the 40 percent mark as of 2019. That’s the fifth highest in the world. Years of austerity has led to a very visible lack of investment in the islands’ infrastructure. Desalination plants, hospital clinics, roads, ports, ferry services, power grids – they are all struggling under the uncontrolled rise in tourist numbers. Water shortages and power cuts on the islands aren’t uncommon.
What you can do
Ironically, keep visiting. The stats show that tourism has hugely bolstered the Greek Islands as they struggle with their economic woes. But be wise about where you spend your money. Sticking to small Greek-run hotels and guesthouses, tiny tavernas, village shops and local tour guides are all ways to ensure that your euros go straight to the islanders instead of into the pockets of international companies. In fact, the best tour operators encourage this. It’s good to support rural communities especially, and invest in islands that don’t see many tourists. That’s good for you (fewer crowds; one-of-a-kind souvenirs; delicious home-cooked food) and it’s even better for the communities of the Greek Islands.

Overtourism & cruise ships

The Oxford English Dictionary shortlisted overtourism as one of its words of the year in 2018. For the Greek Islands, it’s been the word of the decade. Poor Santorini is perpetually the poster child for overtourism. There’s a reason for that – it’s the most visited and also one of the smallest islands in Greece, with visitor numbers rising from 3.3 million in 2012 to 5.5 million in 2017.

The island was also an unwilling case study for the 2018 EU Parliament Transport Committee report on overtourism, which comes to the no-nonsense conclusion that a lack of governance has let things spin out of control. After all, there was a 66 percent growth in tourists between 2012 and 2018. The Santorini mayor Nikos Zorzos imposed an 8,000 cruise passenger arrivals per day limit, as well as encouraging vacation companies to push Santorini as a year-round destination.

Santorini isn’t the only island sinking under the weight of tourists. Ionian Islands like Zante, Corfu and Kefalonia are struggling with the millions of visitors a year concentrated on just this handful of headline islands. Ferries overflow with people and luggage in high season, along with roads, ports, airports, while waste disposal facilities and electricity grids struggle to cope with the surge in numbers. It’s not just the lack of economic investment that’s to blame; it’s the sheer number of people using finite island supplies.
Emissions from cruise ships and shipping are thought to have shoved Santorini’s air pollution levels up to 340,000 particles per cubic centimetre. A very busy street is around 25,000.
Big all-inclusive cruise ships go hand in hand with overtourism. Over 18,000 cruise ship visitors per day can arrive in Santorini at peak season. Very little of these tourists’ euros are spent in the town. They buy their excursions on board, use on-ship tour guides, and have most of their meals on the boat. Workers move onto the Greek Islands for the seasonal work that cruises bring and then move back, so the islands shut up for winter.
What you can do
Believe it or not, keep visiting, but ease the pressure on the most visited islands. Use a responsible tour operator that knows the islands and the unique pressures they face, and directs your attention to just as beautiful – but much less stomped-on – corners. Don’t crowd onto that one corner of Oia for a photo of the famously spectacular (and famously packed) sunset. Visit Naxos, too, where villagers still slowly press olives and fish for a living. Your investment means that they can continue to do so. Don’t stay for three nights – go for seven, 10 or even 14 nights, so that the islands see more than a glimpse of your investment and you have time to get into the idyllically relaxed swing of island life. It’s a win-win for everyone. Avoid the busy high season (June to early August) if you’re going to Santorini. The island is much more pleasant in late spring and autumn, anyway. Get behind David instead of Goliath. Small ship cruises of anywhere from eight up to 80 people can be environmentally and socially sound. Read our responsible cruises guide to find out more.


Flora, fauna & climate

The white-gold beaches and coves of the Ionian Islands are a vital breeding site for endangered loggerhead turtles. Of course, where there are beautiful beaches, there are people, yachts and hotels that want to be on them. It wouldn’t be a problem if these people were in their dozens, but the Ionian Islands expected almost three million tourist arrivals in 2018. And where there are tourists, then beach bars, sunloungers, hotels and ships follow.

The WWF has protected Sekania on Zante, where there can be anywhere between 500 and 1,000 nests a year in just over 500m of sand. It bought the land in 1994 and now manages it to exacting conservational standards, allowing only scientific researchers close. However, external environmental threats are often out of conservationists’ control.

In recent years, wildfires in Greece have proved to be catastrophic to fauna and flora, but also people. Sekania Beach on Zante was razed by a fire; WWF volunteers helped fight the flames and manage the erosion caused by vegetation loss. Villages on Evia Island were evacuated in 2019, as they had four wildfires in the first six months of the year. Over on the mainland, a wildfire killed over 100 people in Mati outside of Athens.

People (arson, discarded cigarettes and barbecues) are a major cause of wildfires in Greece. But climate change and the subsequently hotter summers make things dramatically worse. Increasingly dry weather, island water shortages and sea winds make wildfires more likely to spread out of control very quickly.
What you can do
Don’t do anything that might start a fire, including discarding glass bottles and cigarette butts that could start a blaze. Barbecues and bonfires are banned between May and October. Avoid boat trips around Zante, especially in the already busy Bay of Laganas. This is important turtle mating and nesting territory from April to June. Don’t use umbrella spikes in sandy beaches in any of the Ionian Islands, as you might accidentally puncture a nest under the sand. Consider going on a conservation vacation to the Greek Islands, or perhaps a dolphin watching trip that helps monitor dolphin numbers. Go on a walking or cycling vacation, where your footprint is minimal. Don’t buy natural sponges and coral found in many souvenir shops. Chances are, they’ve been harvested in an irresponsible way and probably aren’t even from the Greek Islands.

Responsible tourism advice

Annie Antonatou from Mystic Blue, our sailing vacation specialists, shares her thoughts on the most pressing responsible tourism issues in the Greek Islands:

Water woes

“The biggest problem here is the water, because they’re small islands. It’s barren. There is a drought. The government is building more desalination plants, but the water doesn’t always taste as good, so many people buy bottled mineral water. It’s best to avoid plastic bottles and use your own bottle with a filter or just drink the desalinated water for a week.”

Struggling Santorini

“Santorini is a nightmare because there are so many people. They have many overtourism issues there. We now have a policy to conserve electricity and water – we let clients know. Santorini is a bit different form the rest of Greece, as so many hotels change sheets every day.”

Avoid high season

“From mid-July till the end of August it is high season and the islands are overcrowded, so there is a lot of pressure with water consumption, resources, plastic, pollution, ferries and so on. It would help a lot for people to visit out of season. The big cruise ships go to Santorini and Mykonos, but they don’t go to the other islands.”

Buy local

“As always, support the local people. That's most important. Try to stay at hotels or guesthouses owned by people who live on the islands throughout the year and not just for the season. Eat only at local taverns and not at seasonal restaurants.”
Filippos Venetopoulos from our small group adventure specialists Intrepid Travel offers his view on overtourism in the Greek Islands:


“Overtourism can be an issue in some of the islands such as Santorini. The biggest challenge for the island is when three or four cruise ships arrive on the same day, disembarking 15,000 tourists within a six-hour window. The roads get flooded with people, the cable car has huge lines of people queuing up and the overall effect to the town is not a positive one.”

Spread the love

“Having said that, this applies to maybe three islands in Greece. Greece has a total of 6,000 islands of which 200 approximately are inhabited. Most of them have very small numbers of travelers going by, so the income from tourism is not that high. So for me the real issue is not overtourism in Greece, but actually spreading the love among the rest of the islands.”

Tips & tricks

“Do not forget to take your reusable water bottle, as water from taps is drinkable and accessible. And there’s no reason to buy food supplies or consumer goods from the big supermarket chains and corporations, but rather from local agores (aka street markets) and small family owned business with handmade products (check that they are made in Greece).”
Photo credits: [Page banner: lupu robert ciprian] [Economy: Scoot McLeod] [Overtourism: Klearchos Kapoutsis] [Wild fires: Lotus R]