(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the time has come to place restrictions on cruise ships visiting Greece’s most popular islands, the government’s first move to cope with the effects of “over-tourism” in the post-pandemic period.

“I think we’ll do it next year,” Mitsotakis said in an interview, speaking about the decision to cap cruise ship visits. The new rules could see the total number of island berths restricted, or a bidding process introduced for slots, he said.

For Greece, the stakes are high. Tourism accounts for around a quarter of its economic output, and in the post-Covid era the country has smashed records for tourist visits and spending.

Greece welcomed 32.7 million tourists in 2023, 18% more than the year before, while the first quarter of 2024 has seen a nearly 25% rise in visitors. Cruises generated €847.4 million ($910 million) in revenue last year, more than double the 2022 figure. 

While the premier’s decision could set off alarm bells across the industry, the new restrictions are unlikely to make a major dent in the massive tourist sector, with ships continuing to visit most islands and many cruise vessels home-ported in Piraeus, near Athens.  

Instead, Mitsotakis’s comments raise questions about whether larger, mega cruise vessels deliver economic benefits outweighing their environmental impact. 

Speaking with Bloomberg, Mitsotakis drew attention to the strain on the country’s most popular spots, including the Cycladic island of Santorini. 

“Santorini in itself is a problem,” the premier said June 12 at his Athens office, noting that there could be a disconnect between the sheer number of vessels docking at the island and how much they contribute to the tourist economy. And other visitors to Santorini could be turned off by the cruise ship traffic, he said.

“There are people spending a lot of money to be on Santorini and they don’t want the island to be swamped,”  Mitsotakis said. “Plus the island can’t afford it, even in terms of security.” 

Santorini, known for its striking volcanic landscape and photogenic sunsets, was last year Greece’s most popular island destination for cruise ships, with 800 vessels calling, delivering almost 1.3 million visitors, according to the Hellenic Ports Association. That’s nearly a 17% jump from 2022. The island is home to around 15,000 permanent residents.

Greece isn’t the first Mediterranean country forced to take action to deal with the effects of its popularity among tourists. Italy in 2021 banned large cruise ships from the canal leading to Venice’s historic center after damage due to over-tourism, while day tourists are now charged a toll to enter the center during peak periods.

Other Greek islands, too, are feeling the strain. Party-centric Mykonos saw 749 cruise ship visits in 2023, second only to Santorini, an increase of over 23% from 2022. 

“Santorini is the most sensitive, Mykonos will be the second,” the premier said. Though many Greek islands are straining under the weight of their popularity, these are the ones “that are clearly suffering.”

--With assistance from Vassilis Karamanis.

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