Oia, Greece – As the mythical Greek summer season winds up, visitors pack the small, white-washed streets of one of the country’s most iconic destinations: the island of Santorini.
Tourism is a lifeblood of the Greek economy, accounting for about 25 percent of it, and 90 percent of Santorini’s economy is dependent on selfie-stick-wielding visitors.
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It has become a double-edged sword for Santorini as the island’s 15,000 residents can see up to two million yearly visitors. Placards placed around Santorini’s villages remind tourists to respect the homes and holy sites.
George Sarelakos, founder and president of Aegean Rebreath, an organisation working to protect the marine environment, told Al Jazeera that high visitor numbers also presented an increasing environmental risk to Santorini, particularly given the island’s lack of drinkable tap water.
“You can imagine all these thousands of tourists being on the islands, buying one or two bottles of water per day. We’re talking about a crazy amount of plastic that ends up at the bottom of the sea,” he said.
Aegean Rebreath has undertaken activities such as encouraging many of the luxury yachts which dock on the island for onboard recycling and has organised harbour-cleaning activities.
“I won’t forget the facial expression of the tourists when they saw a tonne of marine litter coming out from the harbour,” Sarelakos said.
He said it was essential drinkable tap water solutions were found to make the island more sustainable.
“We really believe as Aegean Rebreath that the path Santorini and other islands in Greece are on is not viable,” Sarelakos said.
With many Greeks earning only about 800 euros ($857) a month, rising costs have also meant some are priced out of popular tourist destinations with the average price for a hotel in Santorini being about 150 euros ($160).
Paros, a Cycladic neighbour of Santorini which has a total of 12,000 permanent residents, saw 560,479 ferry arrivals in 2021 and has also had renewed focus on tourist footfall.
This summer locals protested against the swarms of privately owned sunbeds and parasols taking up large stretches of sand and charging about 100 euros ($107) for a set, leaving no space for others to use the beach.
Some businesses received permits to use the beach, but residents pointed out they often started putting loungers well beyond the agreed limits, meaning others could not lay their towels on the sand.
Christos Georgousis, a retired teacher and permanent resident of Paros, said residents were tired of the continuous occupation of swaths of sand by expensive sunloungers.
“Without rules, we cannot live. And these rules seemed to be flouted by the beach pirates,” he said, adding that the protests had so far largely been successful.
He said arrests had been made and action taken by the power of the residents’ protest with a Facebook group dedicated to “Saving Paros Beaches” made up of more than 12,000 members.
Struggling key workers
Paris Tsartas, professor of tourism development at Harokopio University of Athens, told Al Jazeera that the issue of “overtourism” was particular to a number of oversaturated destinations such as Santorini and Mykonos, presenting problems notably for key workers such as doctors who often struggled to find accommodation.
“The rents are sky high. And this is, of course, related to overtourism. So they prefer to rent their houses to the tourists, and not to the people who are involved in all these very vital sectors,” he said.
Tsartas said he expected overtourism to become a bigger headache in the next five to 10 years.
Meanwhile, Greece expects another bumper year for tourism.
Data from MarineTraffic, a ship tracking platform, revealed Mykonos hosted 209 cruise ships from June to August this year, a 35 percent increase from last year during the same period. June peaked with 72 arrivals.
Meanwhile, Santorini saw 203 vessels, with July leading at 74 arrivals.
Georgios Hatzimanolis, head of global communications at Kpler, which owns MarineTraffic, told Al Jazeera that this summer Mykonos averaged two cruise ships a day with peaks of six.
“This means, potentially 14,000 passengers could flood the tiny island in just one day,” he said, warning the island’s “already strained infrastructure” could buckle under the pressure.
“The surge in cruise tourism is not only an environmental concern but also threatens to tarnish Mykonos’ luxury reputation.”
Protecting the Acropolis
Efforts are already being made to tackle some of the potential harm of mass tourism.
At the country’s most iconic landmark, the Acropolis, there are plans to limit visitors to 20,000 a day with a timed ticketing system to tackle overcrowding and protect the historic site.
“Obviously, tourism is desirable for the country, for all of us. But we must work out how excessive tourism won’t harm the monument,” said Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister.
Authorities have previously said tackling overtourism is a “top priority”.
Tsartas said authorities had increased efforts to tackle the issue, including campaigns encouraging people to visit other parts of Greece and throughout the year rather than just the busiest summer months.
Some steps already taken, such as individual destinations setting up their own organisations to deal with tourism, were helping the situation, he said.
“But the fact is that we should have had them 20 years ago,” Tsartas added.