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Santorini sinks under cruise ships

- by Andy Cornish

Santorini may be a favourite island for holidaymakers but it's also a must-see port of call for cruise ships and looks set to pose problems for yet another year.

Not only its Santorini the most popular Greek island destination for regular tourists but in the spring the island also gets swamped by tens of thousands of cruise ship visitors.

Any holidaymaker staying in the island resorts of Fira to Oia will experience the heart sink as the next cruise ship pulls in and thousands pour down the gangplanks before ascending the cliff face to cram the streets.

You might think that local shopkeepers and taverna owners jump with joy at the sight of another cruise ships but the sad fact is, Santorini islander benefit little from the extra arrivals.

According to Bank of Greece figures, cruise tourism contributes just 8% to the economy of Santorini, compared to 44% for the port of Piraeus, near Athens and 15% to the island of Corfu.

And cruise ship visitors spend a lot less in the shops and cafes than other tourists as they mostly hop ashore to take a few photos of the notable Santorini sunsets before climbing back aboard to get their inclusive evening meals.

You only have to wander the overcrowded streets above the port to wonder if the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.

The Santorini island population amounts to only 15,000 people yet more than 12,000 tourists arrive on cruise ships every day during the summer with almost all of them cramming into the tourist hotspots of Fira and Oia.

On busy days, cruise ships queue up for a berth in the caldera and some even transfer passengers on small pleasure boats until they can bag a berth.

Add to this the 2,000 or so daily arrivals on scheduled high-speed ferry services from Crete and it results in days when it is almost impossible to find a spot free from the hordes

And it's not just tourist on foot that causes problems with overcrowding. Hundreds of tour buses and shuttle services now operate on the island to carry cruise ship tourists around the island sights.

Many buses now become trapped in the narrow village streets, especially in the evening when they haul in their passengers to take a photo of the famous sunsets over the caldera.

Recent research papers have issued dire warnings if Santorini authorities fail to tackle the problem. The number of houses on Santorini has trebled since 1970 from under 4,000 to more than 13,000.

Experts warn of the strain on the island infrastructure, especially the water supply, waste treatment and rubbish disposal.

And the soaring number of cruise ship visitors is causing more traffic congestion and environmental pollution while putting a huge strain on energy supplies.

Santorini is already one of the most popular for Greek island holidays with around 60,000 tourists beds of which 23,000 are apartments and 12,500 are hotel rooms with the rest taken up by holiday lets.

According to the latest figures around 1.3 million-a-year book holidays to Santorini, nearly double the numbers in 2012.

Domestic arrivals at the small island airport near Kamari are up nearly 200% since 2009 with passengers complaining of long queues (sometimes up to three hours) and delays in boarding flights, even out of season.

New airport owners Fraport-Greece plan to extend the terminal, doubling the floor space and check-in counters to help speed up services.

Santorini is not the only tourist hotspot to be troubled by the sharp rise in cruise ship visitors in recent years but, unlike others, appears to be unwilling to do anything about it.

Venice, for example, now bans cruise liners above a certain size from berthing near the main canals while authorities on the French Riviera have limited cruise ship arrivals and spread times of day when ships can berth.

No such solutions for Santorini so far where cruise ships can arrive all at once and island authorities limiting their actions to managing immediate problems instead of planning for the future.