Tourist fleeing, but it’s not only COVID-19 on this Greek Island



Tourists on this Greek island got scared and got on their cell phones to get information and see what happened. A little later, they picked up the towels and umbrellas from the beach and left for their rooms, while those who were sleeping woke up to the deafening sound of warplanes” the tourist agent of the island, Konstantinos Papoutsis, described to the local paper.

Early Monday afternoon, travel agencies were filled with noisy tourists and visitors who were wanting a return ticket for the first boat to Rhodes. Phones are “broken” in the travel agencies of the remote island.

The reason is not Coronavirus but as a coronavirus precaution, the ferry service has been suspended since March. Tourist numbers in Turkey in general from January to August are down 74 percent compared with the same period in 2019. In Kas, tour operators estimate their businesses in the last two months are between 60 and 90 percent of normal years.

For easily visible from Kas, Turkey  across the bay sits Kastellorizo, a tiny Greek island of just 500 people. At its closest point, it is just 2km (1 mile) away from the Turkish shore. Kastellorizo is 125km (78 miles) from the larger Greek island of Rhodes to the west, and nearly 600km (373 miles) away from the Greek mainland. And the controversy this year has surrounded who owns the waters beyond it, deeper into the Mediterranean.

Kas has been transformed since the 1990s: first by tourism and then by good relations with Kastellorizo that came with it. Both, though, have been threatened this year: by the COVID-19 pandemic on the one hand, and the rising political tensions on the other.

Across August and September, Turkey and its neighbors have been in an increasingly fractious confrontation over disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the right to drill for vast energy resources in them.

Just beyond the luxury yachts and before the beach club hotels, lies a small Turkish warship in Kas Marina. Docked here on some days and patrolling the seas on others, it is just one sign of an unusual summer on the country’s southern coast.

And while Cyprus – and the waters around it – may be the longest-standing source of that dispute, it is Kas, a small town set between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, that has emerged as the focus of recent tensions. “The whole world is watching!” says one local.

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For easily visible from Kas across the bay sits Kastellorizo, a tiny Greek island of just 500 people. At its closest point, it is just 2km (1 mile) away from the Turkish shore. Kastellorizo is 125km (78 miles) from the larger Greek island of Rhodes to the west, and nearly 600km (373 miles) away from the Greek mainland. And the controversy this year has surrounded who owns the waters beyond it, deeper into the Mediterranean.

From mid-August, a Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis – escorted by warships – spent a month mapping out possible drilling prospects in the disputed waters, a move condemned by Greece and the European Union. In response, Greek frigates were sent to shadow the Turkish flotilla, even leading to a minor collision between Turkish and Greek warships. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned both sides were “playing with fire” where “every little spark can lead to catastrophe”.

Yet in Kas itself, few seem so concerned. Erdal Hacivelioglu, a local electrician and amateur historian who supports Turkey’s claims in the Mediterranean, has been texting his friends on Kastellorizo throughout the showdown, barely mentioning the geopolitics at all. Drinking cay in front of his store, he explains the long ties between the two towns.

Both of course were once simply neighbors in the same Ottoman empire. And while Kas was always more Turkish and Kastellorizo more Greek, the lines between the two were much less stark. Kas is full of beautiful, bougainvillaea-lined Greek houses. Before the population exchanges of the 1920s – where 1.5 million Greek speakers in Anatolia were sent to Greece – it had a substantial Greek population too.

All here will be hoping there is no further escalation.

Yet, few in Kas believe it will get more serious than that. “It’s just politics. It’s just children’s games,” says Turhan, laughing “A helicopter comes. A warship comes. But why? What reason do we have to be enemies with them? We’re like family.”