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Tourists Are Avoiding Lesvos Because of the Refugee Crisis

'We feel like we are being punished': speaking to the hotel owners, NGO workers and residents of the island that became a focal point of the refugee crisis.
11.7.16

Aphrodite Vati's empty taverna (All photos author's own)

"It's a lonely feeling," says Aphrodite Vati, "especially after what happened".

The English language teacher is having breakfast with her parents Dimitrios and Menie in their beachside hotel near Molyvos, northern Lesvos.

This time last year, the upmarket hotel was full of guests; now it lies empty, quiet. Its sky-blue pool is still, immaculate lounge and terrace unused, kayaks idle, its staff – many of them like family members – reduced from 15 to three.

Annons

In June last year, the Aphrodite Hotel had 120 guests. This year, however, reservations for the month were down 70 percent and look like being 80 percent lower by the end of the tourist season. Annual revenue is expected to shrink 90 percent.

"It's a bit like being a rock star," jokes Aphrodite wryly. "You can say you hired a whole resort yourself!"

Aphrodite Vati

Just 4km away, across the Aegean sea, lie the hills of Turkey. Like many islanders, Aphrodite and her family were on the front line in helping thousands of traumatised refugees last year.

Of the 750,000 people who landed on Lesvos, just 2,800 remain in two camps. Since April, refugee boats have averaged just one or two a week, and the main tourist beaches have returned to normal.

But the images that shook Europeans and headlines about "holidays from hell" have stuck. While the story in Lesvos has moved on, the world's media has forgotten to tell it.

In the small town of Molyvos on the northern coast – normally the jewel of tourism on the island – the labyrinth of winding cobbled streets, twinkling lights and tunnels of vines is quiet. Fishermen's catches get little demand, car hire companies await drivers, boat trips go unbooked, and the town's tavernas serve just a handful of diners.

Holiday bookings across the island are thought to be down 75 to 80 percent, according to the island's municipal office. Tour operators have pulled out and at the beginning of the tourist season charter flights had shrunk from 27 a week to nine, with flights from key countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark either reduced or cut completely. UK holiday operator Thomas Cook now offers some of the only remaining direct flights from outside Greece.

Annons

"The hotel can't sustain more than one season of this," says Aphrodite. "We have the possibility of losing [our business] – this would not have been in our thoughts, ever before. Our plans for the future, our hopes and dreams are totally changed."

The same uncertainty faces many islanders, already worn down by Greece's six years of economic hardship. This, coupled with the trauma of the refugee crisis, will be a increasing strain on many people, says Niko Dekeyzer, a Belgian therapist running Sappho House, a geranium-clad retreat near the Aphrodite Hotel.

"For the local people who suffered, having time to just think is not good," says Niko. "They are used to working very hard through the summer and they need success for their businesses. But now with time to think, people will start to realise what they saw and experienced. They are generous, big-hearted people, but it is going to be a very hard winter for many."

The harbour in Skala Sikamineas

To the east, along the coast, lies the picturesque village of Skala Sikamineas, where the fishermen became famous for their refugee sea rescues. "We feel like we are being punished for a situation we helped deal with," says Panagiotis Kallipolitis, a kind-faced taverna owner.

His family's restaurant, which is reached through shady olive groves, serves grilled fish, sweet tomato prawn saganaki and syrupy quinces, but is mostly empty.

"Despite Greece's worsening economic crisis, we tried to help as much as we could. [Last year] customers congratulated us for helping but said they would only come back when this is over. This wasn't our fault and if we were in their shoes we would understand because we work hard and we would want a nice holiday. But we haven't had time to show tourists everything is fine now," he says.

Annons

"We don't let this thing take us down, we will try to keep this business going. Greece is the ideal holiday location, people are very warm, they welcome you, the food is very good and clean and there are nice beaches and fresh air."

Some tourists are arriving, though, with the specific aim of helping local people by combining holiday-making and volunteering. At Korakas, the northern-most tip of the island jutting out towards Turkey, tourists help Swedish NGO Lighthouse Relief clear the last remaining dinghies. Ingrid Kemper and Steffen Barentsen, a couple from the Netherlands, cut deflated rubber into pieces while their friend Jacques dons a wetsuit and dives for sunken fragments.

"When we heard about all the problems it broke our hearts," says Ingrid. "We didn't know if we could help much but one thing we can do is come and support the tourism. When I first came [to Lesvos] I was so overwhelmed by this island, the people, the beauty, the nature," she says.

Molyvos at night

All the major tourist beaches on the north coast have now been cleared, explains Isabel Cardenas, from Lighthouse Relief, but the operation needs more money and volunteers to clear the most remote beaches. "People can come and have a nice holiday and then if they want, help clean the beach and get a work out for an hour, a day or a week," she says.

Back at the Aphrodite Hotel, British tourists Joanna and Neil Smith from Hull soak up the sun in the peace and quiet.

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"Everyone at home turned their noses up when we said we were going to Lesvos," says Neil. "We've not seen a single refugee since we've been here. The island needs tourism and we would hate for it to die away. I love the food and the people and you feel really happy to be spending your money with the locals."

In the office, Aphrodite's father Dimitrious is defiant. "We must be optimistic it will get better," he says.

@overthefarmgate

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