IIt’s 3 p.m. in Rizes, a farmhouse in the heart of Mykonos, and there’s not a bottle of champagne in sight, a deckchair for lounging in, or a flicker of music that could drown out the sound of winds blowing through the bamboo. near.
That’s because Nikos Zouganelis, “born and bred” on party island, deliberately sought to do something new. “At Rizes, we want to experience the Mykonos of our roots,” he says of the business, whose delights instead include cooking lessons, bread-making and horseback riding. “We don’t make champagne, we don’t make music, we don’t make crowds.”
Zouganelis’ quest to honor what was once the authentic Cycladic island way of life is partly a reaction to what he has seen around him. Yet it was not instinctive.
He too, he says, has made his fair share of contribution 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 transform a rocky outcrop, whose terrain even in ancient times was legendary for its hardness , in what it is today: a playground for the rich and famous.
This summer they included Elon Musk, the world’s richest man; 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 vacation on the island.
Zouganelis thinks his beloved island has reached a tipping point. “We got lost,” he sighs sadly after the conversation turns to the bulldozers, which may not be in sight around Rizes but have eaten away at the land to make way for homes at a record speed elsewhere. “Mistakes were made. We have all contributed to it. »
The tourist season is far from over, but already more than a million holidaymakers have passed through Mykonos. In July, around 220,000 visitors were recorded in a single week with at least 30,000 staff – three times the resident population – occupying restaurants, hotels and private villas. “Everyone wants to live their myth in Mykonos,” rejoices 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 revenue.
This year alone, he enthused, a series of contracts have been signed with airlines in the Middle East, securing a new market of tourists from the Gulf States.
True to form last week, black-windowed people carriers carrying new arrivals navigated Mykonos’ heavily congested road network, as they do every summer. Champagne flowed in high-end restaurants; fashionistas and TikTok influencers paraded the city’s cobblestone streets as shops sold high fashion and clientele at popular gay venue JackieO’ enjoyed sunset cocktails.
It’s a microcosm of glamor and glitz that has managed to survive alongside an otherworldly inhabited by older generations of local devotees, which can also be seen in the city’s waterfront cafes.
But success brought drugs, money laundering, protection rackets and organized crime. The once land-poor island ignited the country’s tourism industry following its ‘discovery’ in the 1950s – by travelers visiting neighboring island Delos, long considered the holiest place in the ancient Greek world – but now faces the consequences of overdevelopment.
“Our island is full, it has exceeded its limits,” explains Marigoula Apostolou, president of the local folklore museum. “Our natural environment has been destroyed, our water and sewage infrastructure cannot cope, and that’s before we even talk about the threat to our way of life being called a party island.”
Mykonos, she said, was more than “eclectic menus and nightlife.” “We have customs and traditions that should also be explored. Any new so-called development by foreign investors will not only increase pressure, but lead to general downgrading.
In her studio in town, Irene Syrianou is among those trying to promote the culture of Mykonos through mosaics inspired by the magnificent examples found among the ruins of Delos. It’s a world of stone, a far cry from the island’s transformation into a high-end tourist spot and VIP mecca. The daughter of a farmer, she worries more and more about the pressures exerted on the inhabitants unable to pay rents and inflated grocery bills. Even the beaches have been privatized by companies charging upwards of €70 (£60) for a sun lounger.
“A lot of us have forgotten that we are children of the poor,” she says, adding that noise pollution from bars has gotten so bad that residents have started petitioning the mayor. “Life here is hard, the prices are exorbitant and the living conditions difficult for those who work seasonally. What none of us want is for our island to lose its soul, to lose its character.
In his office, Mayor Koukas has a panoramic view of the hill opposite, a hill that was virtually devoid of buildings as a child but is now a mass of villas, many with chefs, concierges and masseuses ready to respond to the whims of footballers and other stars.
“Welcome to my world,” he retorts when asked about the construction of a particularly large villa dug into the hillside, after the approval of a former minister of culture.
He also shares fears that Mykonos is heading towards a saturation point after the business-friendly Greek government announced it would pursue controversial plans to build gargantuan hotel units in the name of “strategic investments”. A project backed by investors in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait envisions the construction of a small village with a harbor capable of mooring superyachts.
“Mykonos had its best year, tourist arrivals increased by at least 20%, but sustainability is our biggest issue,” admits Koukas. “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 happy about it because we would also like to be recognized as a center for cultural tourism. The last thing we want is to lose our cultural identity.