“Sarah, I want to go to one of those islands with the white buildings,” my dad told me as we pondered Greek destinations to visit with my Michigan-based parents a few weeks prior. Although I prefer Greece’s lesser-known islands — there are 227 inhabited Greek islands, after all — we decided on Santorini.
Although many will say it is overrated and has been ruined by throngs of Instagram obsessed travellers who care little about the island’s culture, it is undeniably picturesque. One side of the crescent-shaped volcanic island is a steep cliff, called the caldera, formed by a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago. The views over the water from the caldera side are stunning. The island’s smaller villages like Emporio and Pyrgos are charming. There’s also a spectacular hike along the cliff connecting the two main villages, Oia and Fira.
Yet it’s true that many tourists go there simply to take the famous photos in front of the island’s blue-domed churches, splurge on expensive accommodations and clap when the sun sets at the village of Oia — ignoring the rest of what the island has to offer. This is what Santorini has come to be known for internationally. My mom said it best: “I wouldn’t really say it’s really a Greek island experience, but it’s certainly a Santorini experience.”
A room with a view
Since it was low-season and our budget was tight, we managed to find an affordable place to stay. In the summer months, Oia accommodations can easily soar above €500 ($545) per night — which is almost half the monthly salary of a Greek professional, by the way — and in my humble opinion, isn’t worth it.
Santorini is one of the most expensive destinations in the Aegean, along with the expensive party island of Mykonos. It’s thus a cash cow for Greece, a country which derives 18% of its gross domestic product (GDP) from tourism.
On our first morning, I realized I had foolishly forgotten to brief my parents on where to buy coffee (Hint: Look for the local bakery and stay off the main tourist drag). My dad returned with three cups of espresso, lamenting that he had paid a total of €17 ($18). I didn’t have the heart to tell him a typical coffee to go in Greece is usually around €2 ($2.20).
Fresh paint and anticipation
During our visit at the end of March, preparations were underway for the upcoming season. All over Oia, workers were scaling buildings, covering them with fresh coats of white paint. The sound of hammering and drilling filled the air, but the streets were calm, with few tourists.
Prior to the pandemic, Santorini was earmarked as an over tourism problem spot by the EU’s transport committee. In 2019, the island saw 2 million visitors — not in the least because cruise ships were dislodging up to 3,000 people a day. In the five years prior to the pandemic, overnight stays on the island increased by 66%.
During the last couple of years, plans to combat over tourism have been muted, as Greece’s tourism industry set its sights on getting tourists back into the country after the pandemic devastated business. In 2020, Greece saw only 7.4 million tourists, while in 2022, Greek airports counted 31 million international arrivals, surpassing even 2019 numbers. Can 2023 beat that record?
I met up with tour guide, Kostas Sakavaras. “I’m feeling overwhelmed,” he said. “Since March, I’ve been running non-stop. The 2021 season was my best ever, with an ideal balance between work and leisure time. 2022 was busier, and my bookings for 2023 indicate that it will be even more demanding.”
Sakavaras and his wife own Caveland, an accommodation that’s already fully busy until the end of October. “However, the island’s infrastructure is not designed to handle such vast amounts of visitors,” he added. “Managing the garbage and dealing with the impossible traffic situation are becoming more challenging each year.”
Skipping the summer season
Visiting off season was a good move. Our car rental was cheap and we didn’t suffer the famous traffic that clogs the island in summer. There were enough bars and restaurants open, although many establishments were still closed.
The riskiest element of traveling this time of year, however, is the tempestuous weather. We had one incredible blue-sky day and a couple of very windy nights, making the sunset viewing experience a particularly frigid one.
Yet, despite the cold, Oia was full of underdressed women in colourful clothing smiling for the camera. After all, the biggest driver of Santorini’s popularity in recent years is social media.
Several young women were wearing elegant evening gowns as professional photographers took their photos. The price of the photo package presumably included said colourful gown and an assistant to hold the end of said gown and ruffle it at the perfect moment. This struck me as the kind of vain touristic circus that Santorini has been criticized for becoming.
Oia is notably dotted with signs reminding tourists to keep their voices down and stay off private property. Indeed, the words “Stay off!” were painted on rooftops and private walkways, where people would otherwise try to strike a pose.
The best time to visit
In short, if you feel you absolutely must go to Santorini, I can recommend going before or after summer and exploring sights off the well-trodden tourist beat.
I turned to my parents for the US tourist summary of the trip. “Santorini is famous for a reason, because the beauty is really unique,” my mom mused. “I feel really lucky we were able to come here in the off-season because we were able to avoid the crowds.”