Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images
It’s 3pm in Rizes, a farm in the heart of Mykonos, and there’s not a bottle of champagne in sight, not a sun lounger for lounging on, or a twinkle of music to drown out the roar of the winds blowing through the nearby bamboo.
Because Nikos Zouganelis, “born and raised” on the party island, made a conscious decision to try something new. “At Rizes, we want to live the Mykonos of our roots,” he says of the company, whose joys include cooking classes, bread-making and horseback riding instead. “We don’t make champagne, we don’t make music, we don’t make crowds.”
Zouganelis’ quest to honor the once-authentic Cycladic island way of life is partly a reaction to what he saw around him. But it wasn’t instinctive.
He too, he says, has played his part in Mykonos’ phenomenal success. Like his father, the bearded 52-year-old built villas and hotels in the construction industry for decades, which helped to make a rocky outcrop whose terrain was already famous for its ruggedness in ancient times what it is today: a playground for the rich and famous.
This summer they included Elon Musk, the richest man in the world; singer and TV personality Nicole Scherzinger and her fiancé, former rugby star Thom Evans; and footballer Mo Salah, who reportedly signed a contract extension for Liverpool worth more than £350,000 a week while on holiday on the island.
Zouganelis believes his beloved island has reached a turning point. “We’re lost,” he sighs sadly, after the conversation shifts to the bulldozers that may not be in sight around Rizes but have been gnawing into the land at record speed elsewhere to make way for dwellings. “Mistakes have been made. We all contributed to it.”
The tourist season is far from over, but already more than a million vacationers have passed through Mykonos. In July, an estimated 220,000 visitors were recorded in a single week, with at least 30,000 staff – three times the resident population – staffing restaurants, hotels and private villas. “Everyone wants to live their myth on Mykonos,” beams Mayor Konstantinos Koukas.
“Mykonos is a wonder. It’s just a little rock in the Aegean and has managed to become an international tourist destination, bringing in billions of euros in revenue.”
This year alone, a number of deals have been signed with Middle Eastern airlines, securing a new market for tourists from the Gulf States.
True to form last week, black-windowed people carriers carrying newcomers navigated Mykonos’ heavily congested road network, just as they do every summer. The champagne flowed to high-end restaurants; Fashionistas and TikTok influencers roamed the city’s cobbled streets, shops thrived selling haute couture, and patrons at acclaimed gay bar JackieO’ enjoyed sunset cocktails.
It’s a microcosm of glamor and glitz that has managed to survive alongside another world inhabited by older generations of ecclesiastical locals, which can also be seen in the city’s waterfront cafes.
But success has brought drugs, money laundering, racketeering and organized crime. The once struggling island ignited the country’s tourism industry after its “discovery” in the 1950s – by travelers visiting Delos, the nearby island long thought to be the holiest site in the ancient Greek world – but is now having to contend with the Discuss 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 devastated, our water and sanitation infrastructure is overwhelmed, and that’s before we even talk about the threat to our lifestyles from being branded a party island.”
Mykonos, she said, is much 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 increase the pressure but lead to an overall deterioration.”
In her workshop in the city, Irene Syrianou tries, among other things, to promote the culture of Mykonos through mosaics inspired by the magnificent examples found in the ruins of Delos. Theirs is a world of stone, a far cry from the island’s transformation into an upscale tourist resort and VIP mecca. As the daughter of a farmer, she is increasingly concerned about the pressure on locals who cannot afford inflated rents and food bills. Even beaches have been privatized by companies charging more than €70 (£60) for a sun lounger.
“A lot of us have forgotten that we are poor people’s children,” she says, adding that noise pollution from bars has gotten so bad that locals have petitioned the mayor. “Life here is tough, prices are high and living conditions are tough for those who work seasonally. What none of us want is for our island to lose its soul and character.”
From his office, Mayor Koukas has a panoramic view of the hilltop opposite, which was virtually buildingless as a child but is now a mass of villas, many with chefs, concierges and masseuses prepared to take care of the crowd Whims of taking care of footballers and other A-listers.
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“Welcome to my world,” he replies when asked about the construction of a particularly large villa carved into the hillside after approval by a former Minister of Culture.
He, too, shares concerns Mykonos could be teetering towards saturation point after Greece’s pro-business government announced it would push ahead with controversial plans to build giant hotel units in the name of “strategic investment”. A project backed by investors in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait envisages the construction of a small village with a port where superyachts can dock.
“Mykonos has had its best year ever, tourist arrivals have increased by at least 20%, but sustainable development is our biggest problem,” admits Koukas. “We want to own our future as a local community…yes, we’re a party island, but Delos is right next door. Elon Musk visited it and we are very happy because we also want to be known as a center of cultural tourism. The last thing we want is to lose our cultural identity.”