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Pictures of Greece, summer 2022 (Photos: Kirsten O’Regan)
Pictures of Greece, summer 2022 (Photos: Kirsten O’Regan)

SocietyOctober 19, 2022

Lessons for New Zealand from Greece’s post-Covid tourism boom

Pictures of Greece, summer 2022 (Photos: Kirsten O’Regan)
Pictures of Greece, summer 2022 (Photos: Kirsten O’Regan)

Europe is experiencing an unprecedented surge in tourist numbers, and New Zealand could be next. But is that really worth celebrating, wonders Athens-based New Zealander Kirsten O’Regan.

Above a private beach club on the Greek island of Aegina, a graffito reads: “NATURE DON’T BELONG TO THE RICHS.” To the south, on Hydra – just beyond the charming old town – trash snags on parched grass above the overflowing dump. On Mykonos, heavy traffic snarls streets, while cruise ships disgorge vacationers into the cobbled streets of medieval Rhodes and a local does a double take at sunbed prices on the Athenian Riviera. “I’m not a tourist,” she says, in disgust.

Across Greece, bronzed arms hail another round of spritzes, as kalokairi (summer, or, literally, “good weather”) draws to a sun-drenched, somewhat controversial close. With high visitor numbers and soaring revenue, Greece’s 2022 tourism season may look like a dream to many – including government officials and tourism operators in New Zealand, where the coming summer has been positioned as the first in years to be free of uncertainty and border restrictions.

But in Greece, the economic benefits must be weighed against significant costs. As Aotearoa celebrates the arrival of its first “post-Covid” cruise ship and Wellington signals a tourism reset that will “unashamedly” prioritise “high-quality” visitors, the mixed results of Greece’s aggressive tourism strategy may hold timely lessons.

Graffiti on the island of Aegina (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

Kalo kalokairi! (“Happy summer!”) Greeks wished each other at the start of the season, and those wishes have, in a way, come true. After two summers hamstrung by the pandemic, the tourism industry, which usually brings in almost a quarter of Greece’s GDP, has been making up for lost time. The government lifted most Covid protocol in time for summer, pushing Greece as a safe, outdoorsy travel destination for these anxious times. Arrivals shot up across the board at Greece’s largest regional airports, and a south Aegean tourism body has called this “the best year for tourism in the history of the islands.” It’s now post-peak season and still hard to find a hotel room in popular locations.

Long an accessible getaway, with its abundant coastline and relatively low prices, Greece has also pivoted to attract big spenders. This season, the government explicitly targeted high-income tourists, amplifying its luxury offer with ads targeting elites and a concerted push for new direct flights from the United States. Celebrities, billionaires, sports stars, and influencers have answered the call. With Magic Johnson having an epiphany on the Acropolis, Elon Musk yachting off Mykonos, and Nicole Kidman floating in turquoise water under trademark white cliffs, Greece has found itself in vogue.

Visitors explore Lykavittos Hill in central-Athens (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

The hard-won 63 direct flights per week from the United States paid off, with 50% more Americans (who typically spend more than other nationalities) arriving in June 2022 as compared to the same month in 2019. More significantly still, the number of private jet landings has spiked, with demand so exceeding available airfield space that slightly panicked-sounding reports suggested abandoned military zones might need to be repurposed.

In response to inflation (at 11.6%, in July), the fuel crisis, and, presumably, high demand and the Covid-shaped hole in the economy, prices of ferry tickets and accommodation have risen sharply – with luxury hotels now charging double what they were in 2019, on average. Tourism spending is unsurprisingly up, with the Bank of Greece predicting revenues to exceed those of 2019, a record year.

The New York Times ran a handful of tasteful travel articles on Greece’s offer this season, guiding America’s liberal elite to discover a classier side to Santorini and take a chance on Athens’s edgy contemporary art scene. Meanwhile, a piece titled “Looking to Pair Golf and Real Estate? Try Greece,” gestures toward another page of the Greek government’s playbook: a number of visa categories specifically designed to attract foreign investment and lucrative longer-term stays.

Thanks to these policies, international demand for Greek real estate is booming, with foreign buyers accounting for nearly half of all property sales – and up to 90% of sales on popular islands. Speculation and demand for short-term stays is also pushing up rental prices. While mansions are emerging, mushroom-like, from the austere Cycladic hills, scores of hotel projects have been greenlit in central Athens. “The biggest challenge,” says mayor Kostas Bakoyannis, “is to make the change without losing our soul.”

Freedom campers avoid hiked prices on Agistris’ secluded beaches (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

For Greek tourism businesses, the summer of 2022 has been a godsend. Presumably not unrelatedly, unemployment reached a 12-year low in July. But one good summer is hardly a panacea for Greece’s economic woes – and, while papering over some cracks, this “highly successful summer tourist season” (in the words of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis) has opened others.

Although high-value tourism is often invoked as an answer to the problems of mass tourism, it might have a greater environmental toll; and Greece, in any case, seems to have overshot, with both more and wealthier arrivals. Its most popular destinations are showing the strain. For the islands’ ecosystems and infrastructure, this season looks like a stress test, with barely manageable pressure placed on water supply (which most of these parched landmasses must import), power generation, waste disposal and sewerage systems.

Hyper-development is seen by residents as a threat not only to the environment, but to their cultural identity and way of life. In a year when July tourism revenues have never looked better, Greek household finances are stretched thin, with almost half the employed population unable to afford a holiday. This would be a bleak reality in any context, but in Greece – where kalokairi is a core part of the culture; where young and old alike measure the success of the season by the number of ice creams eaten, the number of dips taken – the situation is a more existential threat.

Sunbeds await tourism crowds on Naxos, before the summer rush (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

Increased prices and, connectedly, the rise in elite tourism are shouldering Greeks out of what political scientist Stathis Kalyvas calls “an essential part of their collective identity”: the ability to visit ancestral villages, to swim in the sea, to enjoy the summer. In “A summerless Greece?” and an accompanying interview, Kalyvas details how the pivot to luxury tourism has resulted in the privatisation and commodification of Greece’s natural resources, curtailing public access to the sea and transforming the country into “a kind of reservation for very wealthy people.”

Among Greeks, a sense of disenfranchisement prevails. “Forbidden” is the word our landlady uses to describe the situation. Greeks are “forbidden,” she says, from holidaying on the islands.

Greece’s tourism surge is not necessarily a new dynamic; the intended result of government policy, it continues a trend that was merely interrupted by the pandemic. But, while lucrative, it has hardly been an unmitigated triumph.

Even the Greek government has taken time out from revelling in this summer’s haul to tacitly recognise the downsides of its approach, by extending its Tourism for All programme which subsidises the holidays of low-income Greeks, voicing concern about sustainable development, and announcing policies intended to help young Greeks into homes.

But a shift is already, inexorably, underway – the stakes of which Professor Kalyvas, describing a recent visit to Santorini, eloquently laid out. “It’s like traveling in a different country, which creates this kind of very strange feeling,” he told an interviewer. “On the one hand you have the iconography of Greece, the blue sea, the white houses, the villages. But increasingly you don’t see Greeks at all. And that raises the question about the meaning of what Greece is.”

Although Aotearoa and the Hellenic Republic are very different, the Greek experience could be read as a cautionary tale. Like Greece, New Zealand is preparing to reopen to global tourism; like Greece, it hopes to attract a more upmarket clientele. But resetting tourism, as Greece’s summer shows, is a complicated endeavour – the profit motive sometimes stubbornly at odds with complex socioeconomic, cultural and environmental realities.

Maybe, as the mega-yachts recede from Greece’s Campari-soaked coves, New Zealand should reconsider whether it aspires to be their next destination.

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