Photograph: Alexandros Beltes/EPA
Hordes of tourists jostle in groups along the cobbled avenue below the Acropolis on a late November morning that is more summer than autumn. Others hop on and off the open double-decker buses that criss-cross the coast. A man dressed as an ancient marathon runner poses “for payment” with the majestic citadel in the background.
“We are having a fantastic year,” says Greek Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias. “It’s almost December and the season is still ongoing, and that’s exactly what we want: to extend it, a little at a time.”
Tourism in Athens, like Greece in general, has defied all expectations. The sector, the country’s economic engine, was budgeted to gross €15bn this year and looked doomed when bookings froze in February at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, earnings are more likely to exceed €18 billion with visitor numbers poised to approach 30 million – nearly three times the nation’s population – despite the war, the absence of Chinese visitors and the unwanted appearance of jellyfish. , says Kikilias.
At the height of summer, some 16,000 holidaymakers faced the arduous climb to the Acropolis every day. In the alleys of Plaka, the neighborhood below the ancient site, shopkeepers say they have never felt so comfortable. “If anything, we just want them to go home now,” says Anna Simou, who works at a contemporary Greek design shop in the neighborhood. “We are all exhausted and this is due to management hiring new staff.”
But the post-pandemic rebound is not without risk. Kikilias is the first to say the burgeoning industry needs to be spread more evenly beyond the “two and a half regions” that draw crowds. Sustainability is also on the mind of Kostas Bakoyannis, the mayor of Athens, who last week called for a tourist tax to be levied on visitors to deal with increased demand for services. At a time when the Greek capital was invariably seen as a transit route to the islands, more than 7 million tourists are estimated to have descended on the metropolis in 2022.
“It’s not fair that 650,000 permanent residents in the heart of ancient Athens have to foot the bill,” says Bakoyannis. “If we want to support the city, we have to adapt as almost all other European capitals have done and introduce a tourist tax on visitors.”
Americans arriving on 63 non-stop flights a week have been instrumental in making Greece the world’s third most popular travel destination this year, according to industry data. But as officials calculate the success of an industry accounting for 25% of GDP, the specter of overtourism – long evident on islands like Santorini – has raised concerns about the dangers rising numbers pose to the preservation of cultural jewels. .
As home to 18 Unesco World Heritage Sites, Greece is increasingly highlighting the challenges of managing visitor numbers, with experts emphasizing the fine balance that needs to be struck between the protection of ancient monuments and their development for tourist use. The 495-429 BC Acropolis, which is among the designated sites, was itself the center of controversy when in 2020 the government installed concrete pathways around Periclean’s masterpiece and an unsightly glass and steel elevator funded by donors private to improve access.
“The red lights are flashing,” says Peter DeBrine, Unesco’s chief tourism adviser.
DeBrine said studies have shown that, more than ever, travelers want sustainable options.
With tourism returning to both Europe and the United States, it was imperative, he said, that capacity measures be taken at popular heritage sites.
“We have gone from overtourism to revenge tourism with the same net effect,” he told the Guardian, describing the latter as a pent-up response to the pandemic. “What is needed is a radically different approach that starts with consumers but extends to tourism and heritage management. It is clear that the authorities must take steps to alleviate overcrowding at World Heritage sites if the tourist experience is not to be degraded and conservation assured.”
Unesco’s 50th anniversary conference in Delphi discussed the impacts of the climate crisis and overtourism. He urged members to change marketing tactics to focus on attracting fewer, high-spending, low-impact tourists rather than large groups.
“Our hope is that tickets will soon be sold online-only because that would be a safe way to limit access,” DeBrine says, adding that the season-based ticket price adjustment could also apply with admission tickets. which cost more in the height of summer. “Choosing to travel during the off or mid season has a huge impact.”
East Asian heritage sites recently began implementing a new Unesco visitor management and strategy tool to identify a baseline for sustainable tourism.
“He gave us a snapshot,” DeBrine explained. “We realize that tourism is the lifeblood of so many communities and is vital to local economies, but overtourism is a real danger. Either you’re smart and take measurements or you kill the goose that lays the golden egg.