Tourism is supposed to be way down in Greece this year, right? Then perhaps someone can explain why there were approximately 35,000 tourists jostling and clawing for space to capture the perfect shot of the setting sun last night in Oia, on the island of Santorini?
I knew before we arrived that Santorini is the most popular (and expensive) of the 200 or so inhabited Greek islands, and I visited the place once before, 15 years ago. But I wasn’t prepared for the tsunami of tourists that descended on the dramatically situated blue and white town that has 813 jewelry shops but just one supermarket and school.
Oia is renowned for being a beautiful place to watch the sunset, and so scores of tour operators bus package tourists into the town right around sunset to capture some memories. As we made our way through the town, I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw at least 4-5 vantage points, each clogged beyond belief with a few hundred people jostling and competing for the perfect spot to photograph the sunset.Watching the setting sun is supposed to be a tranquil, romantic, intimate thing to do while on vacation. But we found ourselves in a veritable mosh-pit of mostly Asian tourists, who were intent not only on photographing the setting sun, but also on photographing themselves in front of the setting sun in various glamour poses.
We saw young men and women climbing up and over walls and fences, onto private property, to try to stake out higher ground, despite the risks. We witnessed two verbal fights that appeared as though they were going to degenerate into physical ones, as people argued over who had the right to stand on what spot. And I saw more than a few people physically push others aside in order to get the shot they wanted.
To say that it was a circus would be a huge understatement. I thought that the first vantage point we saw (in the video above) was crowded but soon realized it was by far the least crowded of the bunch. We’ve spent the previous month in the much lower-key islands of Kos, Patmos, Samos and Syros, where we encountered no busloads of Asian tourists, and only a couple of Americans, all cruise ship passengers.
So when we arrived in Santorini for just a short two-day stay en route to Crete, we felt a bit like country bumpkins arriving in the big city, as an armada of tour buses left the port, all in a long line, creating a ferocious traffic jam leading up into Fira, which reminds me a bit of the tourist sprawl in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to Smokey Mountain National Park.
As we waited for the sun to set, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone had a camera, myself included. I wondered what the hell we were all doing there, in the same spot, and concluded that we weren’t there to experience the beauty of a sunset. No, we just wanted a photo of the damned thing.
But I was curious to see this magical sunset. I assumed that the hordes of people were there for a good reason and was expecting to see the most glorious setting sun of my lifetime. Oddly enough though, it was just an ordinary sunset. Beautiful, sure, but no different or more beautiful than one I’d experienced in a lovely and completely empty restaurant with a great view in the town of San Michalis in Syros just days before.
The crowd in Oia broke out in applause when the sun set behind the horizon, but I couldn’t help but feel like we’d all just been party to something very, very strange. I was initially put off by the pushy crowds of camera toting tourists but then I became intensely interested in the bizarre spectacle.
We had traveled a long way to see a glorious sunset, but it felt like being stuck on a crowded commuter train in Tokyo at rush hour. But tourism is way down in Greece by all accounts. So just imagine how crowded this same place must have been last year or the year before that! And it’s only June, wait till July and August when the crowds really form, locals said. Greece needs the money and I hope the place gets even more crowded. That is, as soon as I leave.
We’ve had the luxury of time and have been fortunate to be able to explore the Greek islands at a leisurely clip on this and other trips, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for anyone in the crowd who was about to get on a bus never to see another sunset in the Greek islands. I wanted to tell them about the sunset we saw in Syros, maybe give them the address of the restaurant. But why? So that place could become the next Oia?
There’s a lot of natural beauty in Santorini and if you get out past the most well known places, you can find serenity, even in this intensely touristic island. The geography of the place is undeniably unique. I know people who love Santorini and have the ability to enjoy the beauty and ignore the rampaging sorority girls on quad bikes, tacky tourist traps and hordes of package tourists.
I’ve always sought to avoid intensely touristy places like Santorini, but for one night, I was there with the masses, clicking away. The funny thing is, I think most of us were so busy taking pictures we missed the actual sunset. Maybe it was better than we realized.
(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)