Greek Traditions in Santorini: Hidden Behind Tourism

The landscape of Santorini, a small island located off the coast of Greece, is filled with royal blue domes, perfectly painted white walls, pink bougainvillea flowers and narrow cobblestone streets. The entire island is nothing short of picturesque – Until you notice the buckets filled with overflowing white paint scattered along the walkways, the immense number of tourists and the slow disappearance of visible Greek culture. The flood of tourism in Santorini has impacted the way traditional Greek customs are practiced on the island.

Tourists waiting to board at Santorini Port.

In 2016, Santorini was visited by 2.5 million people, which is the highest number to date. Currently, there are 75 airlines offering flights to Santorini and as many as 57 flights from numerous countries arrive per day during the summer months. Majority of these visitors arrive through cruise ships. As many as 10,000 tourists came ashore from ships a day during Greece’s peak season months, which starts in May and ends in October. Last year, Santorini was the most popular island in Greece to be visited by cruises, with a total of 636 ships docking there.

As of this year, only 8,000 cruise tourists will be able to disembark daily. Authorities of Santorini introduced a new system of managing the cruise passenger traffic to evenly distribute cruise ship calls over each week as well as limiting the number of cruise passengers to redefine Santorini tourism.

There are two goals for the cruise passenger rationing system. The first is to ensure that Santorini no longer allows more passengers than it can serve with quality and efficiency. The second goal is to ensure a distribution of traffic across weekdays to avoid days with excessive arrivals. Currently, the port of Santorini is experiencing an organization problem due to the number of visitors arriving and departing. To that end, the cruise ship traffic management system will rely on specific parameters: It will choose the optimum combination of arrivals per day so as not to exceed the limit, while allowing for less popular days to arrange more arrivals.

Tourists rushing to get to tour busses after disembarking from the cruise ships.

The Municipality of Thira and the island’s Municipal Port Fund asked the University of the Aegean to research the overcrowding issue. The study found that the local community of Santorini is aware of the social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts/pressures creating by the overcrowding issue, particularly given the uneven spread of traffic.

Crowds of people in Oía, waiting to watch the famous sunset.

Oía is rated the number 1 tourist attraction in all of Santorini. Famous for its sunset views and royal blue church domes, Oía is also the most expensive town to find accommodation on the island. “What once was a small village, meant for meet-ups and local dinners, has now turned into an over crowded 5-star luxurious development,” said Angele Panagakos.

There is a common depiction of Santorini to attracted visitors. The overcrowding tourism in Santorini has caused locals, such as Mikhos Avendino, to believe that the authentic Greek traditions and culture are being lost to the ‘post-card’ view of the island. Mikhos has lived in 4 different towns of Santorini during the last 15 years. “What draws people here is the Google pictures and the way it looks. It used to be that tourists came to Greece to have experiences with the dances, the food and the people. It hasn’t been that way for a long, long time,” said Mikhos.

Greek traditional dance, otherwise known as Horos, was regularly practiced throughout the Greek Islands. While the styles and formations varied depending on the location of the island, each region formed it’s own chorography and style. When Santorini started to become a popular tourist destination, the focus became on making the island a presentable and comfortable place for visitors and foreigners had a lack of interest in Greek dances.

“It’s something to be celebrated. People would dance in the streets when they were happy or when there was a holiday or even for no reason. But now this doesn’t happen,” said Mikhos, “And there are a few reasons. There are too many visitors on this island. The Greek people are working day and night to keep up with it and having days off is rare. Also, tourists don’t seem to enjoy what our culture has to offer. They are more interested in the luxury feel of the island,” said Mikhos.

Family-run businesses are another significant aspect of the Greek culture. The average number of employees of Greek family firms are just two or three people: usually husband, wife and child, according to a 2004 study by the Greek Entrepreneurs’ Association. Sibling start-ups are also common, hence businesses named ‘The Two/Three/Four/Five Brothers’. In 2015, there was a large disappearance of Greece’s family businesses.

Georgios Alogoskoufis, a former Economics professor in Athens, said that Greece has one of the largest numbers of SMEs businesses within the EU and most of them are family businesses. Georgios states that most of these family businesses are small and very small and operate in traditional sectors of the national economy such as retail trade, services and construction.

“The issue is that we are seeing a big divide. Some of us want there to be less tourists, others rely on them,” said Dimitris Kalagardes, co-owner of Two Brothers Bar. Two Brothers Bar first opened its doors in March 1983 by Dimitris and his brother, Giannis. “It’s also difficult because although tourists bring business, they bring it to a select number of places. It’s uncommon for smaller businesses to thrive in a place like this nowadays.”

Giannis said that the reason their business is striving is because they chose to adapt to the modernity. “Most Greek families like to keep the traditions alive. They don’t want to make their buildings modern or import clothing and jewelry rather than making it or readjust their food menus. I don’t blame them. But to survive here, we knew we had to give the people what they wanted – A modern bar with American inspired food,” said Giannis.

The success of Two Brothers isn’t a common path for family run businesses in Santorini. Independently owned stores, such as Gifts by YaiYai, are being bought out by larger owned companies in attempts to further develop the tourist demand. Gifts of YaiYai opened in 2002 and started to see a loss of business around 2 years ago when many of the surrounding stores were sold to corporations. Former owner of the store, Angele Panagakos, is struggling to find a new place to open another business. “Santorini is turning into a luxury island, which is far from what it used to be. Not many tourists want to buy Greek made items anymore. Instead, they want the same brands that they can buy at home,” said Panagakos.

“The problem with this overflow is that we are only working to please the tourism aspect. Tourists don’t want to come to an island with off-white buildings and local boutiques. They want name brand stores and nice hotels.” Mikhos explains that the more tourists there are, the more independently owned businesses are being bought out for higher named brands. “It’s not about our culture anymore. It’s not about the food we make or the language we speak or our traditions, it’s about the island turning into something it wasn’t meant to be.”

Port fund president Ilias Pelekis told Kathimerini that for this year only there will be more flexibility in the system, given that cruise operators have drafted their schedules many months in advance.

“I do believe that tourists can gain a better understanding of Greek traditions,” said Ilias Pelekis. “It is easy to look things up on the internet but people don’t tend to visit here for the culture now. The overcrowding issue also comes from tourists taking over the one or two popular spots on the island and that’s all. Oía is a good example.”

Panagakos said there are many gems located all around the island that hardly anyone knows about. “Tourists usually only go to places they have heard of and that’s why we have this overcrowding issue. If the people that came here spread out into the other small towns throughout this island, it wouldn’t be as bad and then they would also be able to see how Greek people really live.”

Ilias Pelekis said that part of the tourism control is an attempt to help the Greek culture survive. “Family businesses are being shut down and bought out, Greek restaurants are putting pasta into their menus, people are working way too many hours during summer months and the ‘Greek experience’ isn’t an experience anymore,” said Ilias.

Ilias hopes that slowing down the number of visitors will help the Greek community establish a way to tie together both the modern world and the authenticity of Greek culture. “The world needs to see other aspects to Santorini, rather than just the picturesque landscapes.”