Mykonos has had its fill of champagne-fuelled tourism

Show caption A seafront restaurant at Little Venice, Mykonos, with the island’s famous windmills in the background. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images Greece Mykonos has had its fill of champagne-fuelled tourism The Greek island makes a mint as a playground for rich and famous visitors. But locals say development has gone too far Helena Smith in Mykonos Sun 4 Sep 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

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It’s 3pm at Rizes, a farm in the heart of Mykonos, and there is not a champagne bottle in sight, a sunbed to lounge on, or a scintilla of music that might drown the sound of the winds breezing through the nearby bamboo.

That’s because Nikos Zouganelis, “born and bred” on the party island, has deliberately sought to do something new. “At Rizes we want to live the Mykonos of our roots,” he says of the venture, whose delights instead include cooking classes, breadmaking and horse riding. “We don’t do champagne, we don’t do music, we don’t do crowds.”

Zouganelis’s quest to honour what was once the Cycladic isle’s authentic way of life is partly a reaction to what he has seen around him. Yet it was not instinctive.

He too, he says, has done his fair share of contributing to the phenomenal success of Mykonos. In the construction business like his father before him, the bearded 52-year-old spent decades building the villas and hotels that helped turn a rocky outcrop, whose terrain even in antiquity was fabled for its harshness, into what it is today: a playground for the rich and famous.

This summer they included Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man; the singer and TV personality Nicole Scherzinger and her fiance, former rugby star Thom Evans; and the footballer Mo Salah, who reportedly signed a contract extension for Liverpool worth more than £350,000 a week while holidaying on the island.

Egyptian international and Liverpool star Mo Salah on holiday in Mykonos this summer. Photograph: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Zouganelis believes his beloved island has reached a tipping point. “We have gone astray,” he sighs dolefully after talk turns to the bulldozers, which may not be in sight around Rizes but which have gnawed into the land to make way for dwellings at record speed elsewhere. “Mistakes have been made. We have all contributed to them.”

The tourist season is far from over, but already more than a million holidaymakers have passed through Mykonos. In July an estimated 220,000 visitors were recorded in a single week with at least 30,000 employees – three times the resident population – staffing restaurants, hotels and private villas. “Everyone wants to live their myth in Mykonos,” beams mayor Konstantinos Koukas.

“Mykonos is a miracle. It is just a small rock in the Aegean Sea and it has managed to become an international tourist destination that brings in billions of euros in revenues.”

This year alone, he enthused, an array of contracts have been signed with airlines in the Middle East, ensuring a new market of tourists from the Gulf states.

True to form last week, black-windowed people-carriers shuttling new arrivals navigated Mykonos’s heavily congested road network, just as they do every summer. The champagne flowed at high-end eateries; fashionistas and TikTok influencers paraded through the town’s cobbled streets while shops did a brisk business selling haute couture, and the clientele of celebrated gay venue JackieO’ enjoyed sunset cocktails.

It is a microcosm of glamour and glitz that has managed to survive alongside another world inhabited by older generations of churchgoing locals, also to be seen at the town’s waterfront cafes.

But success has brought drugs, money laundering, protection rackets and organised crime. The once dirt-poor island ignited the country’s tourism industry in the wake of its “discovery” in the 1950s – by travellers visiting Delos, the nearby island long regarded as the ancient Greek world’s most sacred place – but is now dealing with the consequences of overdevelopment.

“Our island is full, it has exceeded its limits,” says Marigoula Apostolou, president of the local folklore museum. “Our natural environment has been destroyed, our water and sewage infrastructure cannot cope, and that is before we even talk about the threat to our lifestyle by being branded a party isle.”

Mykonos, she said, was a lot more than “eclectic menus and nightlife”. “We have customs and traditions that should also be explored. Any further so-called development by foreign investors will not only pile on the pressure but lead to wholesale degradation.”

Mykonos in the 1950s, when tourists were just starting to discover the island. Photograph: United Archives/Erich Andres/Getty Images

In her workshop in the town, Irene Syrianou is among those trying to promote Mykonos’s culture through mosaics inspired by the magnificent examples found among the ruins in Delos. Hers is a world of stone, far removed from the island’s transformation into an upscale tourist spot and VIP mecca. The daughter of a farmer, she worries increasingly about the pressures placed on locals unable to afford inflated rents and grocery bills. Even beaches have been privatised by businesses charging in excess of €70 (£60) for a sun lounger.

“A lot of us have forgotten that we are the children of people who were poor,” she says, adding that noise pollution from bars had got so bad that locals had taken to petitioning the mayor. “Living here is hard, the prices are runaway and living conditions tough for those who work seasonally. What none of us want is for our island to lose its soul, lose its character.”

In his office, mayor Koukas has a panoramic view of the hilltop opposite, one that was virtually bereft of buildings when he was a child but today is a mass of villas, many equipped with chefs, concierges and masseuses primed to attend to the whims of footballers and other A-listers.

“Welcome to my world,” he retorts when asked about the construction of a particularly big villa hewn into the hillside, following approval by a former culture minister.

He too shares the concern that Mykonos could be lurching towards saturation point after Greece’s pro-business government announced it would be pressing ahead with controversial plans to construct gargantuan hotel units in the name of “strategic investment”. One project backed by investors in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait envisages the construction of a small village with a port capable of mooring superyachts.

“Mykonos has had its best year ever, tourist arrivals are up by at least 20%, but sustainable development is our biggest problem,” Koukas admits. “We want to decide our own future as a local community … yes, we are a party island but Delos is right next door. Elon Musk visited it and we are very glad because we’d also like to be known as a centre of culture tourism. The last thing we want is to lose our cultural identity.”