“Sarah, I want to go to one of those islands with the white buildings,” my dad told me a few weeks ago, as I pondered Greek destinations to visit my parents in Michigan. Although I love Greece’s lesser-known islands – there are 227 inhabited Greek islands, after all – we decided on Santorini.
Although many say it’s overrated and ruined by hordes of Instagram-obsessed travelers who care little about the island’s culture, it’s undeniably picturesque. On one side of the crescent-shaped volcanic island is a steep cliff, known as the caldera, which was formed by a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago. The views of the water from the caldera side are stunning. Small villages on the island such as Emporio and Pyrgos are charming. There is also a fantastic walk along the cliff that connects the two main villages, Oia and Fira.
Although it’s true that many tourists go there to take famous photos in front of the island’s blue-domed churches, expensive accommodations and to clap as the sun sets in the village of Oia – ignoring the rest of what the island has to offer. . This is what Santorini is known for internationally. My mom said it best: “I can’t really say it’s really a Greek island experience, but it’s definitely a Santorini experience.”
Room with a view
Since it was low-season and our budget was tight, we managed to find a cheap place to stay. During the summer months, Oia accommodations can easily rise above €500 ($545) per night—that’s about half the monthly salary of a Greek professional—and, in my humble opinion, not worth it.
Santorini is one of the most expensive destinations in the Aegean along with the expensive party island of Mykonos. It is thus a cash cow for Greece, a country that derives 18% of its gross domestic product (GDP) from tourism.
On our first morning, I realized I forgot to inform my parents about where to buy coffee (hint: find a local bakery and stay away from the main tourist drag). My father 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 that a typical coffee to go in Greece is about €2 ($2.20).
Fresh paint and anticipation
During our visit in late 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 quiet, with few tourists.
Before the pandemic, Santorini was identified by the EU’s transport committee as an overtourism problem spot. In 2019, the island saw 2 million visitors – not least because cruise ships were displacing 3,000 people a day. In the five years before the pandemic, the number of overnight stays on the island increased by 66%.
In the past few years, plans to combat tourism have been muted, as Greece’s tourism industry aims to bring tourists back to the country after business was devastated by the pandemic. In 2020, Greece saw only 7.4 million tourists, while in 2022, Greek airports counted 31 million international arrivals, surpassing the 2019 figure as well. Can 2023 break that record?
I met the tour guide, Kostas Sakavaras. “I’m feeling overwhelmed,” he said. “Since March, I have been running non-stop. The 2021 season was my best yet, with a good balance between work and leisure. 2022 was busy, and my bookings for 2023 indicate it will be even more demanding.”
Sakavaras and his wife own Caveland, an accommodation that is fully occupied by the end of October. “However, the island’s infrastructure is not designed to handle such a large number of visitors,” he added. Dealing with waste management and impossible traffic conditions is becoming more challenging every year.
Leaving the summer season
The off season visit was a good move. Our car rental was cheap and we didn’t have to deal with the famous traffic that clogs the island in the summer. There were plenty of bars and restaurants open, although many establishments were still closed.
The riskiest element of travel this time of year, however, is the stormy weather. We had an incredible blue-sky day and some very windy nights, which made the sunset viewing experience especially chilly.
Still, despite the winter, Oia was filled with colorfully dressed women smiling for the camera. After all, the biggest driver of Santorini’s popularity in recent years has been social media.
Many young women wore elegant evening gowns as professional photographers snapped their photos. The price of the photo package probably includes the said colored gown and an assistant to hold the end of the said gown and ruffle it at the right moment. It struck me as the kind of pointless tourist circus that Santorini has been criticized for becoming.
Oia is specifically dotted with signs reminding tourists to keep their voices down and stay off private property. In fact, the words “Stay off!” Painted on rooftops and private walkways, where people would otherwise try to strike a pose.
Best time to visit
In short, if you think you should go to Santorini, I can recommend going before or after summer and exploring the sights off the well-trodden tourist beat.
I turned to my parents for an American tourist summary of the trip. “Santorini is famous for a reason, because the beauty is truly unique,” my mother recalled. “I feel really lucky that we were able to come here in the off-season because we were able to avoid the crowds.”