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How One Greek Island Is Trying to Survive Overtourism

Sifnos’s unique combination of political will and cultural vitality gives it a fighting chance to become a story with a happy—or at least not tragic—ending.

A view from above of a harbor with white buildings set against a deep blue sea. A throng of people with suitcases are gathered in the bottom left of the photo, taking bags off a truck.
Christian Marquardt/Getty Images
Tourists gather in a group at a port after leaving a ferry on the way to Sifnos island.

On a warm Saturday evening this July on the Greek island of Sifnos, almost a dozen people sat gossiping and drinking beside a stove oven in the village of Agios Loukas. Every so often, someone arrived to leave a clay pot on a stone ledge beside the oven. 

Kostas Georgoulis, a bearded man in a sweat-stained shirt, fed bits of wood into the roaring fire. Nearby was a table loaded with plates of fried potatoes, grilled chicken, roasted vegetables, and jugs of white wine. 

Every Saturday night in villages across Sifnos, locals carry clay cooking pots of chickpeas, water, onions, olive oil, and spices to communal stone ovens. The pots are loaded into the wood-fired ovens, cooked overnight on low heat, and collected the following morning. Served with capers and lemon, the chickpea stew is ready to eat at the midday meal after the Sunday church service the next day.

The conversation that night ranged from national politics to dirty jokes to gossip about a rich local family. Georgoulis periodically deposited new plates of hot potato wedges or freshly grilled sausages onto the table. At some point, the talk turned to tourism. One man who rented a few rooms on Airbnb complained that the tourists just drank rosé and cooked—they didn’t even spend money at local restaurants. Someone else told a story about a few French people who attended a nearby religious festival, ate a great deal, and contributed nothing themselves. By mid-August each year, someone said, the stench of sewage was unmistakable in many villages; the numbers of tourists overwhelmed the drainage systems, and the overflow spilled from pipes and pooled on the ground.

Sifnos’s permanent population is only about 2,600 people. Between May and October of 2022, a record 126,978 visitors came to the island, with nearly 40,000 arrivals each month in July and August alone; this year is on track to break more records. Compared to some other Greek islands, however, Sifnos actually has a relatively low level of tourism. In July 2022, over 200,000 people visited Mykonos in a single week.  

For a broad range of Sifnians—including owners of hotels, restaurants, and guiding companies who make a living from tourism—the island is rapidly approaching a state of crisis, as unregulated development and overtourism have kick-started a grim cycle of widespread water scarcity, unmanageable quantities of garbage and sewage, loss of agricultural land, and soil erosion. Surging numbers of visitors and new construction projects also threaten Sifnos’s distinctive customs, from the tradition of weekly chickpea gatherings to intricate, centuries-old systems of water sharing and conservation. 

Some of these same traditions, however, constitute a subtle but potent challenge to the forces transforming the island. Food delivery apps rapidly move meals from central locations to scattered individuals; the Sifniot chickpea ovens do the opposite, gathering people to one location for leisurely conversation. Private swimming pools use enormous quantities of water to let a few wealthy people do what they could do for free in the sea. But many older Sifnians remember bathing in the sea as children to conserve water, reusing washing water to flush toilets, and collecting rainwater in stone cisterns for household use.

Without intelligent zoning laws, stricter environmental and water protections, enforcement of construction rules, and perhaps absolute caps on total visitors, culture alone has limited power to save an island. Even a widespread revitalization of customs is unlikely to stop deep-pocketed investors from driving reckless growth across Sifnos. 

Yet these sorts of policies are precisely what Sifnos’s current mayor, Maria Nadali, proposed in a March letter sent to the national government. Nadali’s letter reflects the recognition—rare among other mayors on Greek islands—that the government must act before the problems of overtourism reach a crisis point. This summer’s beach towel movement—in which citizens on multiple Greek islands are reclaiming beaches from illegal private occupation—suggests popular frustration with an unregulated, growth-at-all-costs model of tourism.

On Sifnos, the desire for stricter limits to tourist development is now widespread even within the business community. The island’s unique combination of political will and cultural vitality gives it a fighting chance to become an overtourism story with a happy—or at least not tragic—ending.

The week before my ferry docked in the main port town of Kamares this summer, Tom Hanks and Barack Obama sailed from Hanks’s home on the neighboring island of Antiparos for a meal at the fashionable seaside restaurant Cantina on the eastern side of Sifnos. News of the celebrity dinner quickly spread across the island; the owner of a trinket shop in the port town was still bragging about it to a Dutch family the day I arrived. A few hours later, I met Giorgos Samoilis, the chef and co-owner of Cantina, at a new restaurant he just opened called Pelicanos. 

With wicker chairs surrounding white and blue tables on a shaded stone patio just feet from the sea, Pelicanos seems indistinguishable from dozens of other beachfront taverns across the Greek islands. Unlike many restaurants, though, both Cantina and Pelicanos source most ingredients locally. Fish varies based on what local fishermen catch; tomatoes, veggies, some meat, and manoura cheese all come from the island. 

This local sourcing pushes prices higher. Samoilis, who has a scruffy salt and pepper beard and tattoos on both forearms, showed me a handful of small local chickpeas that cost 10 euros ($10.85) per kilo. If he imported them from Thessaly, in northern Greece, the price would be 3 euros per kilo. A nice meal for two people with wine can easily cost over 100 euros at Cantina, and Pelicanos, though a bit cheaper, isn’t far behind. 

Between 2018 and 2022, 111 construction permits were issued for a total area of almost 25,000 square meters (6.2 acres) of buildings on Sifnos. As more of the island’s land is used for construction, less remains for agriculture. Samoilis is worried about this trend; cooking with local food relies on some local people working as farmers and shepherds. “If everyone sells their land, there will be no more farmers,” he said, sitting in a white chef’s apron with a backward baseball cap on and staring out to the sea. 

It’s a simplification to say Tom Hanks having dinner on the island will ultimately prevent it from being able to grow the local food he ate. But the presence of celebrities on the island helps drive tourist demand for short-term rentals, making new investments in construction more attractive. The paradoxical nature of success for a tourist economy is real: Growth beyond a certain level is self-defeating. If too many tourists visit the island, it risks losing the very things—natural beauty, cultural traditions, local food—they came to see in the first place.

One area of Sifnos still devoted to farming is a small region on the northwest coast called Poulati. As the sun began slanting across the coastal hills in the late afternoon, I drove there with Amalia Zepou, a documentary filmmaker and former vice mayor of Athens who has been coming to Sifnos for over 50 years. She recently spent more than a year interviewing Poulati farmers on their water-sharing and stewardship traditions. We parked on a gravel turnout and walked into a steep valley terraced with high stone walls that created a series of level plots descending like horseshoe-shaped steps to the sea.

“It’s this incredibly sophisticated infrastructure, something like the Colosseum,” Zepou said as we walked beside almond and lemon trees toward the center of the valley. Nine natural springs rising along the slope of the hillside irrigate the land, which has 19 owners from six families. More than 30 open-air stone cisterns and troughs collect water from these springs, and a network of narrow stone channels routes water between the storage cisterns and fields on different terrace levels. “Some of the stonework goes back centuries, and the whole system lets the water gravitate downward through the valley without losing a drop,” she said. 

Equally intricate is the system of conventions that governs water usage in the valley. Access to water varies by season, year, and location, and an informal flow of favors and exchanges helps to guarantee not only the efficient sharing of water but a fair distribution of the work of mending stone walls, maintaining water channels, and planting and harvesting crops. Water use here cuts across standard private versus public ownership categories; farmers with fields in lower terrace levels can often access water from higher springs and cisterns, even if these are technically on private land.

Some of the land in the valley is no longer being farmed, but the area still harbors an astonishing density of crops. Wandering between the terraces, we saw beets, capers, cucumbers, summer squashes, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, grapes, pomegranates, and olive trees, among others. Roughly halfway up the valley, we met Frantzesco Georgouli, a farmer in his seventies and the uncle of Kostas from the chickpea oven, as he was doing his evening watering rounds. A small, deeply suntanned man in jeans and a baseball cap, he told us that while he is retired, he doesn’t want to just sit around watching TV and smoking cigarettes. He likes farming and coming to the fields almost every night. 

He opened a water channel just above a small plot of tomatoes, and a small stream flowed from an opening in a stone terrace wall. As the water began pooling at the edge of the field, Georgouli used a spade to shift aside a small mound of loose dirt and create a path for the water to flow along one row of the green plants. A minute later, he moved the dirt back to its previous position and dug another small channel, rerouting the water into the next row.

“This year, we have enough water, glory be to God,” Frantzesco said. But the trend in recent years has been downward. The spring at the highest elevation in the valley is not far below a hotel. The Poulati farmers attribute declining water levels to low rainfall and climate change, but they also say the hotel is diverting water from the top spring for its own use, ignoring centuries of tradition and depriving farmers downslope of water. 

Just beside one edge of the valley, several squat, rectangular concrete building frames have been erected on the hillside, with huge mounds of dirt heaped beside the foundations cut into the earth. Mayor Maria Nadali has long been bothered by the speed and style of construction on the island, but these new buildings were the final provocation that pushed her to write a letter to the national government this year. Among the letter’s requests were a ban on private swimming pools and on the construction of buildings that exceed a certain size, ignore the traditional architectural style of the island, or are located near cultural monuments such as ancient towers and churches.  The new buildings near Poulati appeared to exceed height limits and are located close to a beautiful historic church. 

The next day, during my conversation with Mayor Nadali in her office at the town hall, her cell phone rang. 

“There’s no water,” a man’s voice said in Greek when she answered.  

“Again?” she asked, incredulous. 

Such calls are becoming more common, especially during the tourist season. Sifnos gets roughly two-thirds of its water supply from desalination units on the island, but these exact a heavy environmental toll. Not only are they powered by petrol, but dumping the salt and chemical by-products back into the sea also threatens marine ecosystems. The units are also incapable of meeting the island’s growing demand for water. 

Shortly after the mayor’s letter was published, members of the building and construction trades asked for a meeting with her and argued that if the island implemented her proposals, they would no longer make a living. She countered that they had things backward: If they did not do the things proposed in the letter, they would no longer make a living. 

Nadali is careful to stress that she does not oppose all forms of tourism. But she does want to encourage visits by tourists interested in nature, culture, and history. Sifnos has hundreds of kilometers of trails flanked by dry-stone walls, some of which date back centuries. Rather than destroying these old walls and ways to build new roads and villas, Nadali wants to preserve them to attract tourists interested in hiking. There are already other islands that cater to people whose main interests are getting drunk and sunburned at fancy resorts—she doesn’t want Sifnos to become another one. She also favors conducting a scientific study that would establish absolute ecological limits and cap the total number of visitors. Even if they love hiking and culture, 250,000 annual visitors would still need more water and other infrastructure than Sifnos could supply. In short, both the quantity and quality of tourists matter.

Many of the island’s inhabitants agree with Nadali, including those who make a living from tourism. “I don’t know what the exact number should be, maybe 10,000 people at a time, but the state should put limits and say what number the island can support,” architect Zoe Gozadinou told me.

Gozadinou has lived and worked on Sifnos for 15 years. Many of her clients are wealthy Athenians or foreigners building luxurious villas as second homes. She would like to see zoning laws that concentrate buildings within villages rather than allowing them to sprawl into the countryside. The Department of Construction responsible for Sifnos did not respond to an emailed request for comment. 

Another strategy for protection is a proposal to upgrade the protection status of a large section of the island. The municipal council of Sifnos unanimously approved this step in December 2022, though it would require action from the Greek government to take effect. Petros Varelidis, secretary general of natural environment and waters in the Environment and Energy Ministry, wrote in response to emailed questions that “(Over)tourism is the main pressure to the natural environment in many Greek touristic islands,” and described Natura 2000 as one among several ways to protect natural and cultural resources threatened by unregulated development.

Gozadinou supports the idea, but she sees short-term rentals as the fundamental problem. “For me, the disaster was Airbnb,” she told me. “That changed everything. Everybody thinks about himself as one unit. But the thing is, all the units make the whole. I’ll do it, and the other guy is gonna do it, and everybody’s gonna do it. That’s what makes the problems.” 

Sifnos is one of several Greek islands that now struggles to find teachers and doctors to staff hospitals and schools year-round. Because property owners can make more money through short-term rentals than year-long housing leases, much of the island’s housing stock is unavailable to those doing essential work for the permanent population. This leads to a strange situation—a housing shortage while hundreds of houses sit empty for most of the year. Many shops and restaurants also make money in the summer, then close for the rest of the year. 

“Year by year, it gets a little harder to live here in the winter,” Gozadinou said. “You feel abandoned. There’s no place to eat or drink coffee or buy cigarettes. We used to have three banks that stayed open in the winter; now it’s one.”

Even some people who rent out houses on the island dislike the impacts of pervasive short-term rentals. Katerina Kanakari owns and rents two houses on Sifnos, but she feels very conflicted about doing so. “The island is being devastated,” she told me. Whenever she went to a favorite beach with friends just five years ago, she said she would always recognize friends and acquaintances. Now, nearly everyone she sees there is a stranger.

Business owners are also concerned about the pace of tourist growth in recent years. Theo Polenakis is the president of an association of business owners on the island and owns a beachside restaurant in the port town of Kamares. I met him for coffee on the shaded veranda of his restaurant, with the murmur of waves on sand just a few feet away. The members of Polenakis’ association include more than 100 business owners. 

“All the people who work with us understand that if you destroy what you have, you don’t have anything to sell. When you come to Sifnos, you want to see something different. The environment, the food, the history. If we destroy all that, then after a few years, we will have nothing left for people to come see,” Polenakis said, gesturing at the shimmering blue water. 

From self-described communists to capitalists fluent in the language of markets and investments, everyone I met on Sifnos basically agreed about the structure of the problems they face. While their proposed solutions differ in detail and emphasis—a prohibition versus a tax on private swimming pools, an absolute limit on short-term rentals versus higher taxes for their owners—there was broad convergence on limiting new construction, protecting agricultural land, better enforcing zoning laws, decreasing total water use, and abiding by ecological limits when determining the number of total tourists allowed on the island. There is still a crucial difference between people who think that nature, culture, and tradition should be protected because they have inherent value and those who support their protection because it’s good for business. But it’s also worth remembering what they share—a belief in the imperative need for more protections. This will require new action by Greece’s national government, not simply local authorities.

A crucial question still exists, on Sifnos and elsewhere, about the best mechanism for regulating access to a finite resource. If scientists determine the sustainable carrying capacity of an island is 9,000 people at a given time, letting market prices allocate those spots will limit access to rich tourists. For all of the flaws of mass tourism, it does provide more people the opportunity to travel. A lottery system might combine the best of both worlds: A small number of people would visit, protecting ecosystems and cultural traditions, but access to those spots would be random, and not based on personal wealth.

On my last morning on Sifnos, I hiked along an old path lined with stone walls that runs from the capital village of Apollonia to the village of Kastro, a hilltop settlement from the Byzantine period perched above the sea. The strong scent of wild thyme and sage hung in the air, and reddish brown lizards darted among crevices in the walls. Apart from wind rustling the leaves of olive trees, the roar of cicadas was the only sound. The sun had bleached the stones to mellow colors of earth and clay, and the yellow and greens of grass and trees on the hillsides formed a classic high-summer Cycladic palette. The path sloped gently downhill through fields with olive groves, cows grazing, and flocks of sheep and goats.  There were also clear signs of new construction on some hillsides: massive rectilinear concrete frames and huge earth-moving machinery.

Throughout the hike, I kept noticing the tops of the surrounding hills. In antiquity, watchtowers loomed on strategic hills with commanding views. After the rise of Christianity, small white churches began dotting the summits of Sifnos’s hills and mountains, symbolizing proximity to the divine. Today, luxury villas dominate many hilltops, giving an endless flow of foreign guests views of the sea. Near the end of the hike, I saw a ridgeline divided almost in two. On one side, the ground had been dug up to support the hulking frame of new construction. On the other side, the earth was, for the present, still intact.