Agata Wagemaker stops to take a picture of a blue doorway. We’re wandering through the marble streets of Oia, a picturesque village on the Greek island of Santorini. Wagemaker is in her 30s and lives in Amsterdam. She has a full-time job in IT, but moonlights as a micro-influencer, sharing her holiday snaps with the 50,000 followers of her Instagram account, Windmill Dreams. She wanted to visit Santorini, which has been on her bucket list for years, before the summer crowds descend. It’s early April, so officially off season, but already large numbers of tourists are pulling out their selfie sticks.
If ever a place felt like it was made for Instagram, it is Santorini. The southernmost island in Greece’s Cycladic region, it is famous for its expansive sunsets and blue and white domed churches, both of which have become a common backdrop on many an influencer’s feed. Its dramatic cliff-face – actually a crater formed from a devastating volcanic eruption in 1600 BC – is almost guaranteed to make first-time visitors gasp and whip out their smartphones. I ask a pair of women in their 20s, who are taking it in turns to photograph each other, why they came to the island. “All the pictures on social media!” exclaims Fariah, who is from Paris. “I just wanted to see it for myself.”
“Santorini has very unique geography that people want to photograph immediately,” says the island’s deputy mayor, Loukas Bellonias. “Social media has turned [it] from just another travel destination into one of the most popular in the world.” He says that during the summer months, mobile phone companies struggle to provide enough coverage for the thousands of people uploading images. At the time of writing, the tag #santorini has appeared in 5,119,277 Instagram posts.
Over the past five years, the number of overnight stays in Santorini has risen by 66%. As the rest of Greece struggles with the ongoing fallout from its decade-long financial crisis, the island is one of only a few places in the country enjoying economic growth. But not everyone is celebrating. A recent report on overtourism by the European Union’s transport committee warned that Santorini is failing to manage the increasing numbers of tourists, spelling disaster for the local community and environment, and putting “the future of the destination at risk”.
Bellonias and his colleagues have been attempting to sound the alarm about visitor saturation for several years, and made headlines in 2017 by introducing a daily cap on cruise-ship tourists. An engineer by trade, Bellonias is in his mid-30s and moved from Athens to Santorini after struggling to find work during the crisis. “Everyone wants to open a business and make money here,” he says, leaning back casually in his chair. “People come from other parts of Greece to find jobs here. No one’s ever short of work. But there are also disadvantages.”
He is referring to Santorini’s problem with over-development: it is three times as built-up as the average Greek island. “Look,” he says, opening Google Earth on his computer. “Imagine 20, 30 years ago there was a village here and a village there,” he says, pointing to the sprawling mass of buildings now covering most of the island’s west coast. “In five or ten years it could end up one big city.” The municipality has no power to stop new buildings going up. That responsibility lies with the Santorini Building Authority, which is controlled by central government. The EU report is highly critical of Greece’s government, citing its “lack of adequate and appropriate governance” and its failure to implement planning legislation on Santorini.
Greece’s planning offices are also mired with corruption and inefficiency. “There are no penalties for ignoring legislation,” says Ioannis Glinavos, senior lecturer in law at Westminster University in London. “There are some restrictions. For example, you cannot build on the beach, but you will see many hotels ignore this.” Glinavos claims that in the run-up to elections, government officials have been known to accept bribes from building owners in return for planning permission.
The internet has a lot to answer for. Airbnb has pushed up rents so much that employers are buying land to build new housing for their staff. It’s impossible to say exactly how much blame lies with Instagram, but the EU report does state that social media has a role in causing “concentration effects of visitor flows”, encouraging people to congregate around specific areas. Local businesses, however, are not complaining, with many making Santorini’s Instagrammability part of their marketing strategy. Photography tours, in which professional photographers help tourists improve their snaps of the island, are increasingly popular, and companies that specialise in wedding and engagement shoots – particularly for Asian couples – are doing well.
“[Instagram] spreads the word for us on a daily basis,” Nikos Georgiadis, marketing manager of Katikies hotel, tells me on the phone from his office in Athens. The hotel’s Instagram feed, which has 53,000 followers, is packed with images of bikini-clad women gazing out at the edge of infinity pools and wandering down white-painted steps. Before social media, says Georgiadis, publicity campaigns “could only reach so many people. Now, there is no limit.” He says the hotel management thinks carefully about how the hotel will look on their guests’ feeds. Sunbeds and restaurant tables are positioned to give the best views, and someone is even employed full-time to continuously top up the brilliant white paint of the walls: “The blue and white is lovely to photograph but every single speck of dust shows up.” Katikies also works “selectively” with influencers, whom they invite to stay for free in exchange for publicity, but Georgiadis denies any responsibility for overtourism: “That’s from the cruise ships. All the hotels on Santorini are very small.”
Does Wagemaker ever worry about contributing to overcrowding? “I do actually,” she admits, sounding slightly downbeat. “I’m sometimes cautious about sharing the small places I find. You never know when something will go viral and crowds of people will come swarming in.” Wagemaker says she tries not to be intrusive when she takes pictures, and criticises other Instagrammers for their reckless approach. “Just now I witnessed a girl climbing over a fence to get on top of a dome to take a photo and it was very slippery. It was just hard to watch, I was just hoping she wouldn’t slip. She really wanted that perfect shot. I think [Instagram] pushes people to do some really extreme stuff.”
This quest for the perfect shot is causing a headache for residents of the island’s busiest spots. “People behave not just badly, but unbelievably,” Michael Ermogenis tells me over coffee at a roadside bakery. A Greek-American who used to work in advertising, he has lived on Santorini for 12 years. “People treat churches like selfie studios,” he explains. “There’s one in front of my house and people used to ring the bell every three minutes or climb up on the roof for their fake wedding shoots. I’d get woken up at 6am by people traipsing across my terrace.” His frustration at the crowds has led him to start hanging “respect” signs around Oia that state “it’s your holiday… but it’s our home”. He also runs a “Save Oia” Facebook page, calling for more sustainable management of the island. “When I first came here I could see there would be problems eventually, because there was no plan [for how to manage high numbers of tourists] at all. But social media has really created the tipping point. All the things that drew me here are now disappearing.”
Not long ago, Santorini was one of the most impoverished areas of Greece. The much-photographed cave houses carved into the cliff face were created because islanders had little in the way of building materials. A devastating earthquake in 1956 destroyed over 500 homes and sparked a mass exodus. “The people here went from having nothing – there wasn’t even garbage to eat – to, within two generations, holding the keys to Fort Knox,” says Ermogenis. “They have this incredible gift from nature. But they’re clueless about how to manage it.”
Other industries that have existed on the island, like fava-bean farming and wine production, are either shrinking or have disappeared completely. Yannis Valambous, owner of local winery Vassaltis Vineyards, says that the grapes he uses to create blends have quadrupled in price due to vineyard owners building holiday accommodation on their land or selling it off for the same purpose. “I don’t blame people here for wanting to make money, as they had nothing for so long,” he tells me. “But it’s getting to the point where I am worried it will have the adverse effect and put visitors off coming.”
The constant building and flood of tourists create tons of rubbish, which is all dumped illegally. Santorini still has no proper waste-management facilities, so all the empty water bottles, coffee cups and restaurant leftovers go into a huge dump which doesn’t meet EU regulations. Leakage is free to infect the surrounding earth, water and air. “We’re not proud of it but we’re trying to do something about it,” says Bellonias, the deputy mayor, who says that every plan for a new landfill site has been rejected by residents who do not want it near their homes or businesses. The municipality has no power to overrule them. Out of ideas and with little power to bring in new policies, its current strategy is to promote the island as a year-round destination “in order to ease the pressure in the summer months”. But of course, this brings with it the risk that crowds will stick around for even longer. What about introducing more caps on visitor numbers or a tourist tax, I ask Bellonias. “We could, but how would it work? Say someone wants to have their honeymoon in Santorini, how do we tell them they can’t come here?”
As the sun sets over the sea, selfie sticks and tripods pop up along Oia’s sea wall, as visitors jostle to get a picture that will look like hundreds of others. I remembered how Ermogenis had described Instagram’s relentless grip on Santorini: “It’s like a wild beast that can’t be tamed.”