How to solve a problem like tourism?

It’s funny when you meet people here and they ask, “So what brought you to Syros?” (by this I mean English speaking people, Greeks are way more relaxed about the why’s – no need to explain) “A plane! and a boat!”  is my stock sarcastic answer. But no, really, we came here only for a few days last August and though “mmm, this is nice, isn’t it?” thinking about which Island we’d spend 6 months on when we finally but the bullet and made it happen. We figured a few practical things came first, not just beaches and hiking but a bigg-ish town with things like supermarkets, culture and healthcare (sensible) but also somewhere that wasn’t at the mercy of infrequent ship connections or a place that everyone rocked up to on July 1st and left on September 1st. We wanted to experience an all year round island, where Greek people live and go about their lives, not just waiting for the first boat-load of tourists to arrive. And that’s what you get with Syros. Of course, we are in the midst of its busiest few weeks in August, where everyone who has family here or a summer house descends in droves or arrives from Athens to escape the furnace-like temperatures of the mainland. Syros doesn’t feel spoiled in anyway by tourism now, it feels gentle and unassuming, fitting in with the character of the island. But that might not always be the case.

There has been much talk this week in the media about tourism and its most negative effects on highly visited areas like Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik and Santorini. The locals are quite rightly refusing to stand by and see their cities and towns blighted by insensitive tourism development that contributes nothing environmentally, socially and economically. From AirB&B driving up rents, to new 5* star hotels creating super-rich ghettos with non-Greek staff employed in droves. There has always been a tension in places that have high levels of tourist numbers, often incoming cruise ship passengers who bring little to the economy in the 5 hours they are bussed between the sights. Or those areas which have heavily invested in all-inclusive hotels, like the many that now line the shores of Greek Islands. These have without a doubt negatively affected the local bars, cafes and restaurants as visitors rarely leave these enclaves.

Last night we watched the Greek news covering the crack-down in Corfu on drunken British tourists ‘ruining’ once calm villages, one local they interviewed described them as doing nothing more “than drinking, being sick and staring at their phones” Cringe. But the solution presented is that they want Corfu to go upmarket. Which is fine if you also have match that with a decent budget provision for travellers who don’t wish to assimilate into ‘Westminster by the Sea’ and rub shoulders with ex-PMs holidaying in their villas.

The tension between welcomed types of tourism and those perceived as unwelcome is an interesting dichotomy. It is not new to see how one group of tourists moves between the spectrum of firstly being welcomed, actively marketed to and then into being demonised and ‘blamed’ for a social / moral breakdown by the media. This is often weighted heavily with its association of UK based class structures and what type of holiday’s are affordable and desirable. Regardless of the fact that Tristram is just as likely to be vomiting after his A-level results in Kavos, as Trevor is. This is also being played out here in local news narratives about drugs and protection rackets on Mykonos – but I doubt that would make the UK news.

Such problems are not unique to Greece but do require quality solutions if the country wants to continue to attract the diversity of tourists from around the world. There is often lots of talk about how may resorts really changed its fortunes by focussing on high spend tourists paying over 400 euros a night for a hotel room. Yet little consideration of the impact this has had on the town and locals. Not everyone is sat there counting money as each boat rolls in…tax receipts will tell you that.

By driving up prices, aiming for exclusivity, there is a whole market of families, budget senstive, culture seekers, hikers and environmentally conscious travellers that will be priced out of visiting places this beautiful country. Not least the vast swathes of domestic tourism that places like Syros rely on. Imagine a Greece that Greeks can’t afford to visit – that might not be too far off already.

A strategy attracting the tourist euro at all costs is doomed to fail. Not every island economy needs to be polished for ‘Mykono-isation’, because sadly, tourist trends change and it is impossible to keep building to keep apace. I can guarantee that every village by the sea on every Greek island has at least one hotel that was once busy that stands abandoned with a forlorn looking ‘Poleitai’ (for sale) sign stuck on the side. These hotel-tombs stand not only pepper the landscape looking unloved, they symbolise the failure of a complex market reliant on a range of factors from partnerships of multinational travel companies, currency exchange, and even the cost of airline fuel. The internet may have changed how we travel and book holidays, but ignoring the local economy and considering sustainability will always have dire consequences, for the local and visitor alike.

Greece as a country has changed vastly in the past 40 years – not just politically and socially. Its major economies have faced further decline and tourism has always seemed like an obvious answer. At present PM Tsipras, for all his socialist leanings, has cut pensions and welfare, moving to high taxation in an effort to appease the balances of EU debt. But employment in tourism isn’t a year round job. It won’t be a solution for the 25% of the population currently out of work generations out of work and highly qualified graduates. Tourism feels like a quick fix, a band-aid on a broken leg.

I can only tell you how I understand and know Greece, I have no claim on this country like a native. I have my own relationship to it as a visitor and it is part of what I like doing, like a hobby or a thing people list in their linkedin profile “Going on holiday to Greece”.

I could list places in Greece I’ve been to – but what does that tell you? Or I could tell you one tiny thing that happened to me on each Greek holiday – like a mosaic slowly being assembled over time. A piece here and there. Not life changing but a tremor along life’s noisy path. The way memories feel and can be evoked; you can immerse yourself in them, get lost all over again in pine scented, hot sticky days, the meltimi blowing sand in your face and walking under starlit skies. So many people feel the same way – people that come back to Greece time and again to rediscover a country that is always changing and revealing its charms in different ways.

My first visit as a tourist was to Crete in 1993. I am sure my mum agonised for weeks over the booking of a two week package holiday in a branch of Lunn Poly (travel agents on the high street remember them? or teletext holidays?  pixel text offers!). From what I vaguely recall we flew from Manchester into Chania and were bustled onto a transfer coach to a little village by the beach called Aghia Marina. Staying in a traditional whitewashed apartment block that was stuffed with dark wood furniture and Cretan textiles.

My parents had first visited Greece in the late 1970s and ventured to Paxos in the Ionian, which at that time was undeveloped with very few tourists. In fact they have a ton of wonderful anecdotes about drinking homemade wine and making friends with locals.  So I imagine it was quite a different experience to head to Greece’s biggest island on a package tour with two kids in tow and the constant entertaining we needed. Without fail we went on a family holiday in ‘factory fortnight’ aka last week in July / first in August,  I remember the beach being huge miles of white sand and the sea being quite wavy, but the village was compact and we only had to walk down the road to find a few taverna’s and a supermarket. There wasn’t much more to it and the simplicity at which you can escape a grey northern town to enjoy a few weeks of life in the Grecian suns was a revelation to my 11 year old self.

All the kids from the apartments would congregate in the evenings and play pool in the bar after we came back from dinner. It was amazing we were allowed to stay up late! There were often powercuts in taverna’s, as the island was just about coping with the big influx of visitors in August.I recall one evening we ate in a ‘Garden Taverna’, literally 3 tables in a Yia-yia’s garden, with a hand painted sign and no menus. We ate surrounded by wild-eyed cats and getting eaten alive by mosquitos – my dad got struck by a wave of nausea (wine related?) which involved him sneaking away back to the hotel taking my brother with him. This left me and my mum alone to face the lady-owner, “of course he loved your food, great – thank you’ mustering as much British politeness as we could whilst speedily walking back to our apartment! I remember teasing my brother who developed some crazy obsession could happily spent 14 nights of a holiday eating bright-pink taramasalta and beef stifado every night, then rating his holiday on which eatery had the best versions of these two dishes.  Greek waiters entertained us with jokes, giving us alcohol free version of shots and old ladies pinched our cheeks in shops. It was a country to which felt timeless and open with possibilities. Fields of fig and olive trees, where rural life seemed to co-exist in harmony with these new tourists.

When you are 11 years old and inhabit that strange hinterland between childhood and adolescence, 2 weeks feels like forever. That was the summer before going to ‘big school’ and that time seems to have burned on my memory as a magical place. That summer the small town world I knew was breaking open in the sunshine, with the allure of blue skies and the scent of pine trees.

The following year we went to Rhodes, to the small village of Pefkos (which means pine tree) which was just starting to expand from a beach and small road of taverna’s into the resort it is today. This time we flew from Newcastle, less of a drive to the airport but the downside being it was a night flight. This meant arriving at Rhodes airport in the early hours of the morning so the coach transfer was a total ramshackle bunch of families tired and tetchy children needing sleep, mixed in with drunken 20-somethings going to Faliraki.

Driving in sheer darkness, suddenly the coach pulls up infront of what looks exactly like a building site and lurches to pull up in front of the ‘BILLY Apartments!’ where 3 blokes are standing on the balcony mooning at everyone on the coach! Oh how we laughed afterwards, but at the time I think my parents tried to shield our eyes in horror!’ If you remember the 90s was when it all started to build in party resorts like that and the 18-30s model took over.

You can imagine what pleasant moods my family were in arriving at our hotel in peaceful Pefkos at 4am – I recall refusing to sleep and annoying my mum to the extent she agreed to walk to the beach with me at 7am just get me to shut up. I then proceeded to get burnt to a crisp that morning. Sweet Karmic revenge.After dinner one night, I have a distinct memory of sitting with a coke-float (our newly discovered favourite treat) in a bar watching an English girl who worked there. When the tourist police turned up she sat at our table and she pretended we knew her! It was THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING EVER! How dramatic and exciting, working in a bar in Greece, sunbathing by day and then being a waitress by night…how exotic, how amazing, I thought…the imaginary walls of the small town I grew up in were beginning to crumble like feta cheese.

After more family holidays to Zakynthos and different resorts in Crete and Rhodes, by the time I was 17, me and a friend managed to be trusted to go back out to Rhodes for the summer to find jobs in Lindos, where we had made friends the summer before. We spend our time working in bars at night and sunbathing by day for a few months of a wildly hot summer living in a studio with no air-conditioning! Not learning how to say anything useful (or inoffensive) in Greek and spending all our drachma’s on gyros. A ‘cultural trip’ which I repeated the next year with a different mate and different Island. On Kos, in the bustling bar-street all night drinking culture was one that I did not really enjoy, all around us was carnage and bar crawls. Which evokes a memory of sitting on the balcony our apartment watching a girl vomit down the street below. I was quite thankful to head back to the UK when my A level results came out and escape to the comparative calm of Freshers Week. It was the best of times and the worst of times for Greece to make money from tourism and for tour operators to exploit this ‘yoof’ market. It was also around the same time those fly on the wall shows like ClubReps on Sky TV were made – which was essentially the best PR to get plane loads of teenagers signed up for drunken bar crawl holidays. Alas, most of the profits went back into the pockets of UK operators too.

But Kardemena, like Faliraki, Malia and Kavos, as well as countless other places have to be been forced to change and grow up. Tourism is imminently competitive and there were years in the mid-to-late 2000s where whole swathes of UK package tour operators went bust in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving Greek owners out of pocket and in some cases ghost towns of accommodation built at the peak, now left in ruins.

I think maybe this was one of the reasons I didn’t come back for a few years as it wasn’t the Greece I liked. But when G and I met, our first holiday together was to a small island called Thassos, which reignited the Hellenic flame. It was a last minute week away in late September in a village called Rahoni. The unpredictable weather meant we battled with rain for half the week, which meant that frogs hopped across the road on the way back to our near-deserted hotel in an end-of season feeling village, and scorching sun for the other half! We also encountered a fearless bat on these nightly walks home which flew into G! The Thassos we found was enchanting, green and lush, with really friendly people and completely deserted beaches.

Greece has changed over the 20-odd years I have been visiting. As a child, as a teenager and now a thirty something woman, I want different things from holidays and it still manages to offer that. Sadly, over the years, my handle of the Greek language has only marginally improved!

I have been lucky enough to have an annual (and sometimes more) pilgrimage to Hellas. From weddings on Santorini and Rhodes, to a cheap week in Crete, I have made it my mission to find tasty taverna’s and off the beaten track beaches.  July and August are great for holidays, even islands like Paxos have quieter beaches and peaceful walks through pine forests. Even Lefkada which is a favourite of Greek tourists is a delight in Summer. We spent 10 days in June on Skiathos without a care in the world, with white stone pebbled beaches and aqua blue seas to dive into. We spent wonderful weeks visiting abandoned villages on hiking trails in Tilos and watching the world go by on Halki. Having discovered the joys of off-season travelling we have spent a magical Easter in Patmos walking through fields of wild Spring flowers and being the first ones swimming in April. We also explored Athens at Christmas climbing the Acropolis in the cool December sunshine. Sometimes these have been package tours, but mostly independent flights and accommodation.

When planning I often refer exclusively to my mum’s dog-eared copy of The Which Guide to Greece and the Greek Islands which is easily my go to reading to find the perfect island to holiday on. It’s hugely out of date, printed in 1994 and gives references to a million things that one hopes still exist. My approach is this – if the book describes a village as horrid or un-touristy, its bound to have had a makeover since then, also pay attention to the places it doesn’t mention it at all – like Kea, definitely go visit! ! If memory serves me correctly it describes Ermoupolis as ‘a seedy port and town that has seen better days’. I see it as a litmus test of how islands have changed! There will always people who say things like “well 20 years ago there were no sun-loungers here and it’s packed now” it certainly isn’t the ‘olden days’ of living off a 1000 drachmas a day and free-camping on the beaches. Since they joined the euro in 2002, prices have escalated for locals and tourists – but I am thankful it isn’t expensive as the UK.

I also spent at least an hour yesterday perusing Google maps on the street views of places I stayed years ago– Aghia Marina has sprawled into its neighbouring reports of Platania and Stalos…similarly Tsilivi and Pefkos now have grown exponentially to have streets of taverna’s, cocktail bars and fast food joints. Change for Greece has not necessarily been a bad thing, but its economic reliance on the tourist economy can be, as the market gets more competition from countries within the EU. Sensitive development and tourism infrastructure need to consider the impact of what happens when tourism stops, learning lessons from the past  – islands can’t be one trick ponies in July and August, then dormant for 10 months of the year. Jobs need to be created in industries that are sustainable.

What makes Greece special is that every corner of Greece has something to offer the visitor and it also has millions of people that come back year after year to experience its warmth, of both its climate and its people. Wherever you roam in Greece it holds beauty, charm and hospitality. Each island and region has its own unique landscape and history, it takes time to discover and with over 227 inhabited islands there’s plenty left to explore. Maybe it is harder to find that perfect spot away from the crowds. But perhaps that’s the trick – visit off season, be brave and bold, go where you haven’t seen a million instagrams of the same view or read about it in Conde Naste Traveller or the Guardian, travel the mainland and the lesser visited islands. Just go.

I think back to the Greece I found first and the one I know as an adult, and fundamentally it has the same character, appealing blue skies, friendly faces, sunshine and a simple way of living. Back then I remember we were given figs by Phillipo who ran the taverna at the top of Pefkos beach. I am glad to see this sense of Filoxenia (the hospitality of welcoming strangers or foreigners) hasn’t changed. I visited our neighbours in the village the other morning for coffee and took them some halva (sweet semolina cake) I made. I left with a bottle of wine, a bunch of homegrown rocket and a branch of bay leaves to dry in the sun. We have also received an almost daily bag of figs from our landlord. Greeks bestow gifts not because they feel compelled to, but honour means you share what you have because you have enough to share– it is as simple as that. Couldn’t we all learn to less greedy and more generous, as tourists and as humans? Take time to understand the place you visit and leave no trace.

Here I am in the middle of the Cyclades, trying to figure out what makes Syros tick and what to do with a 2kg glut of figs – chutney and jam, is the answer.

If only everything else has such a simple solution.

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