The home of Sappho could really use some tourist love

The World
Updated on
Sheep graze on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Sheep graze on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Daniella Cheslow

The numbers are down, but more than half a million migrants and refugees landed on the Greek island of Lesbos last year alone.

Islanders welcome them generously. But that had a big financial cost.

You see, tourism is a big deal on Lesbos. And summer bookings for this year are down by 70 percent.

Not many people, it seems, want to vacation next to a refugee camp. Reporters Daniella Cheslow and Daniel Estrin are among the exceptions. They reported on Lesbos for The New York Times' Travel section recently.

Why? They were curious.

"First of all, we report out of Jerusalem and we wanted to meet some of the people fleeing wars that are almost on our doorstep," he says. "We also had a personal interest. We both descend from Eastern European immigrants, just like these migrants, they also crossed the sea looking for a better life — only in America."

They also read something important. "Lesbos has some of the best ouzo," he says, referring to Greece's potent licorice-tasting booze. The two designed a trip that would look at both sides of Lesbos. It would show them the gorgeous Greek island vacation spot, and as the epicenter of a massive migration.

Estrin says he didn't feel like he was being callous about the trip. They arrived just as the situation on Lesbos changed and migrant arrivals dropped dramatically. He says the signs of the drama are still very much there. "If you go looking for it you will find testaments to earlier dramas like a graveyard of discarded life jackets. Or a real graveyard of migrants who drowned on the way," he says. "But today, if you are on the beach you will hardly see boats coming at all. And locals say this is the best way to help Lesbos."

Locals told him that tourists will help Lesbos recover.

"They have lost a tremendous amount of income because of tourists who think that Lesbos is a crisis. And it's a mistake," he says. "It's a beautiful place and made even more beautiful because of the bottomless generosity that the locals extended toward these newcomers."

Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a million people landed on Lesbos last year. It was more than half a million migrants that landed on Lesbos.