How Greece is going to war on cruise ships

Seven million passengers visited Greece aboard 5,230 cruise ships in 2023
Seven million passengers visited Greece aboard 5,230 cruise ships in 2023 - giuseppe masci / Alamy

Lured by glorious beaches, world-class archaeological sites and comforting cuisine, some 33 million people visited Greece in 2023, around five million more than in 2022. According to the Greek National TourisM Organisation (GNTO), 2023 was also a landmark year for cruising in Greece, with seven million passengers visiting the country aboard 5,230 cruise ships, compared to 4.38 million passengers and 4,614 cruise ships in 2022.

In an unprecedented step last month, however, the Greek ombudsman, an independent organisation created to combat maladministration and ensure the effective exercise of citizen’s rights, stressed the need to regulate tourism in a sustainable way, saying Greece must not “exhaust its potential, wasting it and making our tourist destinations unattractive over time”.

Reacting to the statement last week, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis vowed to put a cap on cruise tourism – an industry that some say is being used as a scapegoat for wider issues of overtourism – by limiting the number of berths available to ships via a bidding process that vessels would need to use in order to secure the slots. Unlike Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona, where restrictions have already been implemented, Greece has yet to introduce a daily limit on cruises to the country’s most popular destinations, but there are fears that capping the number of ships could have a negative effect on the tourist industry which accounts for a quarter of Greece’s economy.

With approximately 1.5m passengers in 2023, Piraeus, the port for Athens, tops the list of popular cruise destinations in Greece, followed by Santorini with 1.3m and Mykonos with almost 1.2m.

In Santorini, where overtourism has angered many locals, Kathrin of tour company Santorini Experts doesn’t agree that cruises are to blame for the island’s chronic overcrowding. She says: “I really don’t like the term ‘overtourism’ – it feels like we’re only calling it that because of the chaos that ensues when there are lots of cruise ships visiting at once. If we just had a different port that didn’t require cruise ship passengers to go through the whole tendering and cable car process, I believe half of our problems would vanish.”

Overtourism is becoming a major problem in Santorini
Overtourism is becoming a major problem in Santorini - David Kilpatrick / Alamy

Santorini-based hotelier Daniel Kerzner disagrees, however. “The influx of large cruise ships strains the infrastructure, congests and deteriorates the experience for all travellers and provides little value to the island… the current move to restrict cruises is essential to protecting our island paradise,” says the owner of Santorini Sky, a luxury hotel in the mountain village of Pyrgos, far from the volcanic caldera where most hotels are situated.

Business owners on the island are also angry at the lack of revenue that cruise tourism brings. “They have everything on board – even souvenir shops – so they come here and just walk around and then go back to their boat without buying anything,” says Maria Dimitirou, who owns a gift shop in Oia.

Dr Lauren Siegel, senior lecturer in tourism and events management at the University of Greenwich agrees: “Cruises bring a huge amount of passengers to a port for a limited duration of hours. It’s often not long enough to have a meaningful experience or make an impactful economic contribution in any given place. I do understand the ease and convenience for those who want to take cruises, but this model only works if the host community also benefits. Unfortunately, many of the ports of call in Greece have become tourist enclaves with nothing left for the locals.”

Although Piraeus, Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes are the main cruise destinations in Greece today, a growing number of passengers are choosing to explore further afield.

CEO of Greek company Variety Cruises, Filippos Venetopoulos says that by using smaller ships that carry fewer passengers his company can be more versatile and offer a different – and far more authentic – experience. “Variety Cruises specialises in small boat cruises offering our clients the chance to enjoy a range of different island stopovers in the Cyclades and in the Ionian and Aegean Seas. We value the environment and do our utmost to limit our impact whilst investing in projects that help minimise overtourism,” he says.

Local business owners complain that cruise ship passengers only come for short visits and don't buy anything
Local business owners complain that cruise ship passengers only come for short visits and don't buy anything - ACORN 1 / Alamy

Hitherto less visited islands including Serifos and Lefkada are complaining of the strain on the sustainability of resources prompted by a sudden uptick in visitor numbers since the Covid pandemic, however.

Pollution, too, is a problem on islands visited by a large number of cruise ships. Recent tests by the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) and air pollution experts from Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Union (NABU) have revealed spikes in ultrafine particles, carcinogenic compounds and soot in the air near Greek islands that are popular cruising destinations. “The real problem is not the total number of tourists. The problem is that most tourists are concentrated in the typical tourist areas we all know. There needs to be a plan to promote other areas in Greece,” says Mike Kapsilis who works for a tour company on Chios, an island in the north Aegean which is rarely visited by the larger cruise ships.

Dimitris Stavrakopoulos, director of Hermoupolis Heritage, a not-for-profit company based on the Cyclades island of Syros which aims to protect the island’s cultural heritage, believes that the problem lies with the way that cruise tourism is managed. “Cruise tourism would have great potential here in Syros, as long as the visitor is encouraged to get a taste of the local culture. The ultimate goal of the island’s tourism development should be based on a philosophy of preserving the cultural heritage and thus turning it into a tourist product that will bring livelihood to the local community,” he says.

In a recent report, the GNTO, which estimates that Greece will welcome more than 36 million passengers by 2026, says that “sustainability and social responsibility are pivotal to the global cruise industry”.

UK expert Dr Lauren Siegel agrees that there could be a positive future for cruise tourism if it’s properly regulated. “Although research has shown us cruise passengers tend to be less motivated by cultural curiosity in favour of budget or convenience, I do think that cruise tourism can be more sustainable if there are limitations to the size and scope of the ships,” she says.