“Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future.”
The weary, gruff proprietor of our Kos budget hotel sits in the breakfast room with his back against the wall, guarding the buffet. Like an island before a storm, his mood is changing and conflicted: he accosts everyone who enters with gale force skepticism, demanding they present breakfast vouchers as proof they’re paying guests, then orients them with sunny pride to the eight different varieties of preserves on offer. The buffet selection is an exhaustive and haphazard mix of home cooking and tourist favorites. Greek yogurt and salad sit side by side with frosted cornflakes and Nutella. There are plates of cheese and cold cuts under plastic in the refrigerator for the Germans, a broad tea selection for the Brits and gooey slabs of frosted layer cake for the inhabitants of any pale, puffy country where all-you-can-eat situations are viewed as contests. It is an impossible task to please mixed crowds at breakfast, even when only three out of a dozen tables are occupied. Troubleshooting the Nescafe machine is a daily dragon that must be battled. The proprietor drops his head forward, rests his graying temple on his fingertips and closes his eyes. At what cost, all of this?
As Greece’s tourism industry has developed, Kos has put its economic eggs in the all-inclusive tourism basket. While the island hosts huge numbers of annual visitors, nearly all of them come via cruise ships and resort hotels offering pre-arranged vacation packages. Fun in the sun-seekers pay out of country tour operators upfront for lodging, food, drinks and excursions. With everything prepaid in advance, only pocket money trickles down to the local economy, and family businesses without major tour group contracts struggle to survive.
“There’s a boat every two days,” explains a souvlaki seller when we inquire about how often cruise ships dock at Kos. “Tourism on the island is up, but business has been quiet. It’s the all-inclusive model. Everyone eats at the hotel.”
As community businesses are uprooted along the coast, culture erosion is inevitable. Since the all inclusive masses are coming for the sea, sand and nightlife, not local culture, familiar favorites like frozen calamari rings replace today’s catch on menus. Restaurants and bars hit the streets, touting their “traditional Greek tavernas” with “live music,” “ice cream brownie sundaes” and “umbrella drinks” to overstuffed cruisers. Corner markets stock souvenir beach towels and refrigerator magnets instead of fruit and feta. Family hotels trim their margins and throw in perks, like this morning’s breakfast buffet, to compete against the resorts.
Recognizing any beach will do, tour operators have been known to stage unofficial boycotts, giving destinations like Kos a year off their island-hopping itineraries to strengthen their negotiating power the following year. When locally owned properties go under, international travel companies snatch up the spoils and vertically integrate. The timing of the 2008 economic crash served tour companies well to expedite the siege.
(This 2012 letter to the editor of the Athens News, written by Jon Sutherland, does a good job of summing up the market dynamics and local impacts of all-inclusive tourism on Greece.)
Kos is, however, an island with a rich cultural history. In the heat of the afternoon, I nurse a Greek coffee under the graceful shade of a tree in the ancient square where Hippocrates, father of Western Medicine, once taught his pupils, and I consider where the island’s vital signs have felt the strongest: the earnest exchange of Greek salutations with a backstreet green grocer still selling olives out of a barrel, the citizens here who, unlike most Greeks, choose to get around on bicycles, and the construction team at work below my balcony laying a new brick road by hand to an uncertain future. I run my tongue over the spot on the roof of my mouth still raw from the cinnamon custard pastry our hotel proprietor insisted I try, volcanic from the oven, and I’m grateful for the home-baked blister.
Taking the Hippocratic oath, new physicians vow to act in the best interest of their patients rather than their own, to not prescribe deadly medicine, and to reject corruption. Perhaps the international tourism industry could use a Hippocratic oath of its own.
To your health, Greece!
Στην υγειά σας!
(Pronounced stin yá sas!)
A few references:
A Greek Tourism expert weighs in:
NPR considers the economic impact of Greek holidays post-economic crash:
Wikipedia breaks down the Hippocratic Oath: