By Jack Allen
MOLYVOS, Greece — “What would you do – right now – if an overfilled lifeboat arrived on this beach?”
It is a question that doesn’t seem to trouble any of the Aphrodite Hotel’s mid-June sunbathers, who lie unperturbed on the hotel’s private beach. But it’s a question that many tourists coming through Aphrodite Vati Mariola’s hotel have had to face.
Four summers ago, the Aphrodite Hotel was the first stop in the European Union for more than 10,000 refugees, who had sailed across the five-kilometer strait from Turkey to the hotel’s beach near Molyvos, on the northern tip of the Greek island of Lesbos. Now, the flow of migrants has dried up – but the negative publicity stemming from the crisis keeps tourists from coming.
Vati Mariola clearly remembered the first boat that arrived. “It was the first day we were open in March 2015, and we were waiting for the first tourist bus to come, and suddenly we heard voices by the sea,” she said.
Vati Mariola and her staff ran to the beach as a Syrian family arrived on the hotel’s shore. Unsure of what to do, she called the coastguard in Mytilene, the island’s capital city, who “had no idea what to do either,” according to Vati Mariola.
When the migrants arrived on the beach, one of the arrivals could not get out of the boat. “It took a while for me to realize that he was paralyzed from the waist down,” she explained. “He was sat on top of his wheelchair, and one of the people explained that he’d been injured in some kind of attack.”
Vati Mariola worried that assisting the refugees might have seen her fall afoul of laws against people trafficking – defined by the European Union as “the facilitation of unauthorized entry, transit and residence of migrants.”
“If we would have been caught, we could have been arrested, or our cars could have been confiscated,” Vati Mariola said. “I couldn’t get arrested – I had a business to run, and kids to look after. So, we took them up to Molyvos, the nearest town, and my mother-in-law convinced the coastguard to pick them up.”
After spending two hours cleaning the beach, removing the lifeboat from the shore and taking the refugees to Molyvos, the reality of the situation set in on Vati Mariola.
“When everyone arrived, all the adults changed into dry clothes, but the kids had nothing to change into. I went home, looked through my children’s drawers, and got some clothes for the kids,” she recounts.
“It was a surreal experience,” she said. “What separates me from them, and my house, and my safety?”
A week later, another boat arrived on the shore of Aphrodite Hotel – but still, Vati Mariola thought that it was another isolated event. “All throughout history, we’ve had arrivals on Lesbos from Turkey and other places,” she explained. “But, slowly, it was two boats a week, then one boat a day.”
“At one point, we had nine boats arrive in a day,” she said.
With assisting the migrants to Molyvos, cleaning up the beach and trips to the local landfill site to dispose of the boats, each boat arrival took two hours out of her day, she estimated. At the high point of the summer, Vati Mariola only had six hours a day to run her business, sleep, and look after her family.
“I was thinking, where the hell is our government? Where the hell were the police? There were no NGOs at this point – it was just us.”
Assisting the boats was “all second-nature,” she believed. “We didn’t have time to think about what we were doing,” she said. “we just had to make sure we were reacting and make sure that our guests and the people arriving were all safe.”
“Some guests would come and watch and cry,” said Vati Mariola. “I don’t blame them.”
“No matter how kind-hearted a person you are, the last thing you want on your vacation is to go through this horrendously serious and bad situation,” she explained. “And then you question whether you yourself are a bad person, and not everyone can handle it. And that’s okay.”
Despite this, she said many of guests were willing to help out. According to Vati Mariola, “the Turkish traffickers told people to stab a hole in the lifeboat before arriving, and then they would toss the knife overboard. Then it was a question of asking the guests to go scuba-diving to find the knives.”
For much of the summer of 2015, migrants were forced to walk from wherever they arrived in Lesbos to Mytilene, where the Greek government were processing migrants – 65 kilometers away from the Aphrodite Hotel. “These people were walking in the summer heat with bags weighing 100 pounds,” Vati Mariola explained.
“This was happening at a time when the hotel was 100% full,” she said. Her staff worried about what tourists were posting on social media, afraid that news of the crisis would affect bookings for the summer season. “We always knew we were eventually going to pay a price for helping – we just didn’t know what it was going to be,” she remarked.
By August, Europe’s television correspondents were reporting daily on conditions in Lesbos. With videos of migrants walking to Mytilene and arriving on the shores of Molyvos being beamed into homes in the UK, Scandinavia, and Germany, many of the Aphrodite Hotel’s key markets were choosing to vacation elsewhere.
“By then, we were having cancellations, or people choosing to leave their holidays a couple of days early,” said Vati Mariola. “They were saying, ‘it’s nothing personal, but we just can’t handle what we’re watching.’”
TripAdvisor reviews suggest guests were very aware of the impact the crisis would have on the island. “Tourism on Lesbos is inevitably suffering, as the media portray the refugee crisis in such terms as to discourage visitors,” wrote one. “We would encourage people to go to Lesbos and not let this situation deter them from visiting a beautiful and friendly island.”
Other guests disagreed. “During our stay, we were confronted by the human misery of the refugees, coming every day from [the] Turkish mainland to the isle of Lesbos,” wrote another in July 2015. “This is not what one wants to see on holiday.”
The hotel closed for the winter in October, with room bookings for the year down by 14% compared to 2014. “It was originally looking like it was going to be our best year ever,” lamented Vati Mariola.
Over the winter, migrants and traffickers had changed their tactics. Instead of arriving at the north point of the island, where Vati Mariola’s hotel was located, they were choosing to arrive closer to Mytilene, where refugees were being processed by the Greek government.
The controversial EU-Turkey deal, signed in late March 2016, also helped stem the flow of migrants, she said. In exchange for €6bn and a pledged revival of talks considering Turkey’s accession to the EU, Turkey agreed to step up coastal patrols and increase efforts to prevent smuggling.
Between closing for the winter in October 2015 and re-opening in March 2016, there were no arrivals on the Aphrodite Hotel beach, said Vati Mariola.
“In March 2016, we had a company from Denmark saying they had cancelled their entire program for Lesbos, despite the fact that we had not a single boat arrive in the last six months,” she said. Flights at the island’s airport, dominated by package holiday companies from northern Europe, dropped by almost 80%.
For Aphrodite Hotel itself, bookings plummeted. In 2014, 9104 nights had been booked at the hotel. In 2016, 2900 nights had been booked – a drop of 68%.
“2016 was devastating for us,” she said. The drop in occupancy forced the hotel to lay off 14 of its 19 staff, leaving only Vati Mariola’s family to run the business.
Vati Mariola said the government at all levels was absent. “There was no compensation for us whatsoever. When there’s sickness in the sheep, or problems with the olives, farmers get subsidies. We didn’t get a single cent.”
Companies on the island lobbied the government to freeze tax bills and assist with loan repayments, but to no avail. The Greek government also refused to change their unemployment benefit policy, which tied seasonal workers’ benefits during the winter to the amount earned during the summer.
“We were paying double – not just having a drop in tourism, but also having to pay out of our own pockets to help the refugees who arrived,” she explained. “Forget the psychological costs and physical costs, which are immeasurable.”
The response by aid organizations also disappointed Vati Mariola, who felt that NGOs side-stepped the local communities most affected.
“Nobody ever came to talk to us, asking, ‘hey, you’ve dealt with this problem for months – what do you need?’ We were never included in the creation of a solution – and this causes anger in the local communities, which might get directed towards the refugees.”
Vati Mariola suggested that NGOs were in contact with people on Turkish shores, which meant they were aware of smuggling attempts. “There were times when an NGO would arrive in their truck and say, ‘there’s a boat arriving in 30 minutes,’ and we didn’t even know,” she claimed.
NGOs would post updates about where boats would arrive and pictures of the situation on Lesbos, which Vati Mariola said would worry tourists. “NGOs were trying to get more donations, but it was destroying the local economy to an extent nobody even imagined,” she explained.
“I used to be very romantic about NGOs, thinking they were doing a lot of good. Now I realize that they’re corporations, and want to make money,” she said, disappointed at seeing NGOs “struggle between themselves to decide what they were going to be in charge of.”
She held most criticism for the international media, who would “sensationalize” events on the island.
“Articles like ‘Greece’s Island of Despair’ in the New York Times were being published. If you went to places like Petra, five kilometers away, you wouldn’t even know there was a problem, even if you came in 2015,” she said.
The media painted residents of the island “as right-wingers, or racists, or even fascists,” said Vati Mariola. “That was the very worst thing we had to deal with – the ugliness of people trying to justify why they were here, or discrediting us.”
The lasting impression on potential tourists had been disastrous, she said; “even last year we were down by 15% compared to 2014.”
2019 is expected to be even tougher for the business – with favorable exchange rates, many are choosing to holiday in Turkey or Egypt this year, instead of visiting Lesbos.
The tough economic situation has forced the island’s tourism business to be more creative in attracting tourists.
Advertisements all over Lesbos ask tourists to look for “The Other Aegean” – an initiative by the Molyvos Tourism Association to lure tourists back to the once-popular island. “After all, it’s still the Aegean,” the brochure for the island said.
“There’s all kinds of festivals on the island – it’s a world-class destination for mountain biking, yoga, food – all kinds of things,” Vati Mariola beamed.
In tandem, islanders have decided to radically shake up politics on Lesbos: currently, the entire island is governed as one municipality, from the island’s capital city, Mytilene. After September 1st, the island will be divided into two municipalities – a move “that will allow our part of the island to really focus on tourism,” according to Vati Mariola.
Instead of having elected officials for each town or village – the traditional method of local government in Greece – there will be seven thematic vice-mayors, responsible for one part of island governance.
Vati Mariola is hoping to become vice-mayor for tourism, having been “pushed into it” by other business owners on the island.
“I said no, originally,” she explained, “but then I was convinced. I’m so tired of letting other people make decisions that affected our lives so negatively, so I felt it was my responsibility to at least take my own life into my own hands.”
The move has not been without tension – discussions are still ongoing as to how money and resources should be divided between the two municipalities – but the decision has been widely welcomed by locals in what will soon be part of the new municipality, said Vati Mariola.
“It’s all change, and we’re starting from zero,” she explained. In the space of a couple of months, Greece has held local, national and European elections – which Vati Mariola hoped would mean favorable policy changes.
“I think of the situation with the government like an oxygen mask on an airplane,” she said. “They always say, ‘put on your own mask before helping your children,’ because adults are of no help to anyone whatsoever if they pass out.”
“The Greek government needs to give us that oxygen mask – because when our hotel isn’t doing well, the whole community here is losing out. Our very existence is in danger.”