Slaves To Sunset: My Santorini Getaway With The Smartphone Masses
The Greek islands have always been the dream destination of many, with their crystalline waters and wild flora. But there is one attraction that captures the attention of the masses, who clamber on top of one another for the chance of capturing it: the sunset. In the economy of attention and social media, how does sunset tourism affect the enjoyment of our vacation?
SANTORINI – Anyone who has visited the Greek islands knows that each one is truly a world apart, in terms of origin, tradition, history and more recent historic evolutions. The standardized luxury of Mykonos has little to do with the rustic tranquility of the small island of Folegandros, which I visited for the first time in 1982, renting a small house at the top of Chora, without electricity and with the only available water coming solely from a bucket from the nearby well.
There were no cars because there were no paved roads, and without a proper port, we had to be brought in by a rowboat that met the ferry offshore. Those times are gone now, but the smaller islands hold onto landscapes and states of mind that remain intact.
I've also experienced the inevitable Meltemi wind and the crystal-clear waters that change according to the local rocks, from the white marbles of Paros to the light gray tuffs of Milos.
But there is a common denominator that unites them all; and in recent years, it has become the master of tourists distracted from the local realities: it is the slavery to sunsets.
Now, there's no doubt that we all love sunsets, with that red disc that becomes huge an instant before being swallowed by the sea, a prelude to the more sophisticated twilight. But its intimate nature is under constant attack from hordes of frenzied tourists whose sole purpose is to capture that moment in a photograph and immediately share it with those who remained in the city, not quite as lucky as they are.
Let's be clear: we all have the right to enjoy it. But how much can we truly appreciate a sunset when everyone is crowded on the same wall, or confined within the same taverna?
Crowds taking photos of the sunset in Santorini
Battle for the view
This is what I was wondering in Santorini, where the town of Oia is literally stormed, starting from five in the afternoon, by an army bearing smartphones as deadly weapons. Buses arrive as if they were vanguards, dozens of them, climbing the island's narrow streets, sometimes coming directly from the airport or the port without even passing through the hotel. Immediately afterward come the rental cars and taxis, followed by the ever-present quads and scooters, disgorging hundreds of tourists into an urban environment where, until just a few years ago, people walked or rode donkeys.
How can one continue to live decently when the ratio of inhabitants to tourists is 1 to 700?
The citizens of Oia have adapted and elevated every house, hotel, tavern or bar, overloading terraces and balconies with extensions and barriers of all kinds. The race for seats in the forefront of those stilted balconies is fierce and unforgiving: if you happen to stand up for a second, someone is already sitting in your place. It's an economy view, one which has transformed a tranquil town into a hellish chaos that doesn't stop until late at night, when even the last bus departs, and the town is fortunate to emerge unscathed. Many times, traffic jams are created, even off-season, and legions of infuriated tourists might not make it in time for the sunset and may have to leave the next day without fulfilling their plans.
Hit-and-run tourism is the true affliction of the Mediterranean, a mythical land that draws armies of tourists with exceedingly high expectations but increasingly limited time. Thus, in two days, you see the sunset in Santorini, the Acropolis in Athens, Argos Tiryns and Mycenae, and maybe even Olympia, shattering all the past and cheapening every monument.
It's true that taking a longer vacation may be impossible, but who says that visiting just one island or one region shouldn't be more fulfilling than these frenzied mini-tours, without substance? Once upon a time, Greece was visited by an elite of cultured and refined travelers, and then it opened up to mass tourism, which literally changed the lives of island residents. And that is a good thing. But shouldn't we reconsider something in the tourism of the near future? Are we certain that hundreds of millions of people must all flock to the same places at the same times? How can one continue to live decently when the ratio of inhabitants to tourists is 1 to 700?
Photograph of a crowd that stands on a cliffside, watching the sunset in Santorini
The hypnotic west
This is what was on my mind while ascending to Zia on the island of Kos, in the Dodecanese, an island that was once Turkish and even Italian, but even earlier, Mycenaean and Minoan. It was also the home of the greatest physician of the ancient world, whose oath millions of students graduate under still, that Hippocrates land now trampled by the pandemic-afflicted, all striving to bend it to their most absurd will.
Everyone with a smartphone in hand, many with their backs to the sunset itself, capturing a selfie.
In Kos, there are still stretches of wild coast not connected by paved roads, that I suppose will little withstand the impact of the tourist masses brought by the presence of the airport. I always wonder what the purpose is of bringing 100,000 tourists to an island where 10,000 thrive: it may yield more profit in the short term, but then it homogenizes everything, erases local identity, destroys landscape and nature, and, in the end, devalues the reasons for visiting Greece.
At the base of Mount Dikeon is Zia, a traditional village with fresh air, forests and a fantastic view of the sea. Unfortunately, it's located towards the west. So, from six o'clock onwards, the tourist buses come to assault the bars and taverns, which work to make the sunset view unforgettable. However, this takes away visual space from those who happen to be in a more secluded position, causing them to elevate platforms to see from a higher point.
The climax is around eight o'clock: in the highest taverns, people dine in the sunlight that is descending or raise toasts on the balconies; further down, the roadside wall is completely crowded, and many people go for a walk because there is no longer a gap to see from. Everyone with a smartphone in hand, many with their backs to the sunset itself, capturing a selfie. Denied the beauty of twilight, the tourists are pushed back onto the buses to descend to the sea again, while some latecomers hurry and ask where the best views can be captured.
In the easternmost lands of the Mediterranean, the sunset's slaves are hypnotized by what happens towards the west, the ultimate paradox of a tourism that is only to be posted and not truly enjoyed.
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