A Greek party town tries to clean up its act, but cleaning up its image is proving more difficult

The small town of Malia on the Greek island of Crete is known for its wild parties, cheap liquor shots and “boozy Brits.” In 2013, a record of 18 British nationals were arrested for violent fights in public places, according to data provided by local police. Since 2015, there’s only been one arrest each year for the same crime.

In recent years, however, the clientele has changed. Small, family-run hotels have renovated their businesses. Newer and larger rooms are now attracting families and older professionals from Russia, Israel, Germany, Norway and beyond.

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Malia’s hard-partying reputation, however, has yet to catch up with its new, quieter reality.

Nested between mountains and a long sandy beach, Malia is quintessentially Greek. The boundaries between urban and rural, house and street, shore and mainland are blurred in this small town that was built without much urban planning. Time runs slowly; the only traffic comes from people heading to and from the beach, often on foot. Grandmothers overlook the streets from their terraces.

“Everyone is welcome,” said Efthymios Mountrakis, the Malia region’s vice mayor and local official responsible for tourism. “What we won’t have any longer is dangerous behavior that disturbs the local community.”

An Italian family playing at Malia beach. Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Eliza Gritsi/WikiTribune

Tarnished past

Konstantinos Kanetas has a special view of tourism in Malia, and how it gained its edgy reputation. His family has worked in the local tourism industry for three generations. He owns rental rooms, a souvenir shop and a bar in the area.

“Malia has a special microclimate, and it is one of the few areas in Greece where bananas grow naturally,” Kanetas told WikiTribune. “These farmers invested their money in small hotel units. Eventually, and with the help of overseas holiday companies, they focused on bookings from Britain. The rooms gradually … accommodated more guests in a hotel unit, and the revenue from the hotel beach bars grew bigger.”

The most infamous manifestations of “booze tourism” are so-called “18-30 packages.” Sold by international tour operators, these holiday deals aggregate hundreds of young tourists (generally 18 to 30 years old) into groups. Many come from the UK. Visitors are given a wristband granting them access to local clubs, bar crawls and booze cruises.

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“The typical customer drinks a lot, parties and, as a result, does things he wouldn’t do in their home country,” Mountrakis said. “For example, peeing on locals’ front doors or drunkenly knocking through houses at 4 a.m. to find a room.”

Not everyone agrees with this view.

“We love the Brits,” a local bar owner who requested anonymity told WikiTribune. “They are polite and respectful during the day. If at night they get a little drunk and get a little rowdy, so be it. That happens in every holiday destination around the world.

“I don’t understand this row with British tourists. They spend money on local businesses; souvenirs, drinks, food. We get no business from the new big resorts near Malia, where everything is provided by the hotel. I’ve lost 70 percent of my revenue in the last year.”

The data provided to WikiTribune by Greek police shows that, in Malia since 2010, more UK citizens are arrested for public indecency incidents in comparison with other nationalities. But regarding fights and violence, British citizens have not gotten in trouble more often than others.

Quad bikes are substituted by luxury cars in the car rental shops of Malia. Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Eliza Gritsi/WikiTribune

Push for change

Creating a new tourism image is hard.

“Businessmen tend to be afraid to change their customer base,” Mountrakis said. “They started taking in cultural collectives and then they came to me. We went to international exhibitions and spoke to tour operators. In unison, we stopped accepting large bookings from booze-tourism companies. In addition, people spent a lot of money to refurbish their businesses to cater to a different kind of clientele.”

For Kanetas, there is a subtle difference to the story of change. Whilst he recognises the administration’s efforts, he points out that “It was the initiative of hotel owners through booking websites that changed the face of Malia,” he said. “Through these technologies they booked their own clients and were in a position to reject the 18-30 packages. It was impossible to host quality clients in the hotels we had. Revamping the resorts was a necessary risk, which individual business owners took slowly, hesitantly and on their own.

“It is also a generational issue. My generation has been to university and is educated in terms of business. We are finally taking back control of the area and investing our money so that we can offer a quality product.

What everyone agrees on is that “booze tourism” in Malia has drastically decreased. “Before 2014, we had 25,000 Brits every summer,” according to Mountrakis. “Now, it is no more than 7,000. Scandinavians are back. They hadn’t set foot here since 1992.”

In 2017, hoteliers’ refusal to rent 10,000 beds to 18-30 packages made headlines in the UK. “There are only two or three hotel owners who will take large group bookings now,” added Kanetas. “They are not even locals, they run these businesses from afar.”

A night out in Malia makes this reality evident. The long strip of clubs and bars that once burst with nightlife is a shadow of what it used to be. Clubs are struggling to fill space. Inebriated teenagers still wander about, but the scene is nothing more than what you’d encounter at Soho in London or nearby in Mykonos.

Even these tourists have changed their behavior, according to Kanetas.

“In my souvenir shop, for example, they now buy handmade creations of outstanding quality,” he said. “It is not that they didn’t want to buy them in the past, it is just that these goods didn’t exist in Malia.”

Two young women from Glasgow going home from a night out in Malia, holding laughing gas balloons they bought at a local bar. Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0; Author: Eliza Gritsi/WikiTribune

Uncertain future

“We are at a tipping point. We are doing better, but the next year, this could change,” Kanetas said. “The press is not helping. There is a lot of money involved, which is why many party companies continue to give quotes to foreign tabloids that fake an image of debauchery.

“They used the same pictures and videos (of salacious scenes) for 10 years in their stories because, simply, these images cannot be captured in Malia any more. Even if there are such incidences, they are no longer characteristic of Malia.”

Mountrakis pointed to a UK company called Party Hard Travel, which has been quoted both in newspapers in 2017 and 2018 with claims of a 400 percent increase in bookings specifically for Malia. Sales statistics Party Hard Travel provided WikiTribune show a 200 percent increase in 2017, and 50 percent for 2018. 

“We are aware of the article you are speaking about and advised the tabloid that we will no longer provide content for them if they are to put us next to any content which is not in keeping with the Party Hard brand,” Nathan Cable, co-founder of Party Hard Travel and the person quoted in the articles in question told WikiTribune.

Cable said his company is trying to put on a new face to party tourism.

“Instead of guests shelling out between 250-300 euros on an events package with the old school operators, our events packages come included with the guests’ holidays, meaning they have extra money to shell into the local economy,” Cable said. “Our guests can afford to eat out every day. … (All guests) have a welcome meeting with our Party Hard hosts where they are clearly told to respect the locals and the resort, and to behave themselves or their wristband will be cut off.”

Despite these efforts, locals remain suspicious of these tour operators.

“They are the ones who get the tourists riled up,” Mountrakis said. “Those who come on their own via internet bookings behave differently than those who scour the town in groups of hundreds.” Kanetas added “The young visitors are told that they can wreak havoc.”

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