IS HERE TO STAY
Santorini has a long history of reinventing itself and it promises to be adept at reinventing itself again to blend its traditions with tourism.
I recently vacationed in Santorini, a volcanic island about 200km south of Athens. I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to be able to visit one of the most breathtaking natural environments possible – a series of picture-perfect villages perched on the edge of a cliff three hundred metres above the sea, bathed in golden sunshine and brushed by zephyr breezes in the summer.
Santorini is now a tourist island and the island’s economic rhythm is driven largely by the demands of the tourist trade. In Santorini, this is focussed on the warmer months – May to October – and to a large extent on the visits of tourist ships that deliver in some cases thousands of tourists onto the island, eager to experience Santorini, generally packaged into a six hour visit. The island’s charms are manifold and readily accessible – visitors are ferried off their boats and then taken either by donkey or by cable car up the 300m cliff to Fira, one of the main towns and the setting for a thousand perfect and near-identical photographs. If you have ever seen a picture of a whitewashed church with a blue hemispherical roof and the sea in the background – well, that is most likely Santorini.
The economy of Fira and Santorini’s other caldera-rim towns is focussed almost exclusively on tourists – trinket, jewellery, artisan and art shops; restaurants and cafes; boat rides; hotels. This provides those who work in these establishments solid, even frenetic, employment through the tourist season. Nick, a waiter at excellent waterfront fish restaurant To Psaraki, was not too worried that it was quiet at the start of the season: Come 15 June, he said, he would be confronted by a wall of 200 diners baying for food from the middle of the day until the evening, 7 days a week until the end of September. Dora, minding a jewellery shop in Fira, confirmed the 7-day-a-week routine until the tourists thinned out, at which time she would be able to put her feet up, relax and tend to her small holding of wine grapes. Nick, a taxi driver, told me he just goes fishing in the winter.
So what impact has tourism had on the traditional economy of the island? Santorini is justly proud of its unique wines, grown not on trellises but in the form of small ground-hugging bushes that draw their moisture from the humid air rather than the barren soil. Its wine production has shifted from the traditional family-based production from one’s own grapes to commercial operations more amenable to sale. Its tomatoes are prized for their intense and unique flavour, as are its eggplants. Yet large scale tomato factories stand idle and abandoned, as people have followed the money.
For all this, Santorini feels like an island that has been able to ride the tourist boom comfortably and craft an effective and worthwhile future for itself. A visit to its 4000 year old ruins at Akritiri buried under volcanic ash confirms that this an island whose inhabitants have learned to adjust to changing circumstances.
And the sunsets! Just gorgeous.