White ripples surround what looks like a shoal of large fish, moving rapidly through the caldera towards the old port of Fira. As they approach the island however, to the cheer of hundreds of supporters, their colorful swimming caps reveal that this group of swimmers are very much of the bipedal kind.
The caldera forms a huge natural amphitheater for this event, and looking down from its edge, the 2.4 kilometer stretch the athletes are tackling looks incredibly impressive.
It’s day two of Santorini Experience, a sporting event featuring open-water swimming and running competitions. The day before, supporters gathered in Oia to loudly greet athletes crossing the finish line of the running part of the event.
While October is normally considered shoulder season on Santorini, characterized by a slowing pace and far fewer visitors than during summer, six thousand people rolled their suitcases up the alleys for this event alone.
That was last year. Athletes from 45 countries on five continents took part in 2018. This year, for the event’s fifth installation, taking place on October 4-6, the organizers expect even higher numbers.
Akis Tsolis, Chief Executive Officer of Active Media Group, co-organizer of Santorini Experience, says the event has proven beneficial to growing the island’s tourism season, contributing to the doubling of international October arrivals at Santorini Airport since 2015. Meanwhile, regular tourists can enjoy following the competitions as well. “All hotel balconies in Fira create the biggest swimming spectator bleachers in the world,” explains Olympic silver medalist swimmer Spyros Gianniotis.
How did a sporting event at a destination traditionally frequented by romance seekers become so popular? In part, it’s thanks to the support of a giant TV Network. FOX Sports broadcasted the event to more than 40,000,000 people in 2016, making it their first ever sports tourism event broadcasted on five continents.
Many awards also helped prove the quality of the production to interested athletes. The organizers have received gold awards for best sporting event production at the Ermis Awards in Greece two years in a row, and were named Unique Tour Company of the Year at this year’s Travel & Hospitality Awards.
“I’ve swam open-water all over the world,” says Greek national team member George Arniakos about his experience last year, “but nothing beats the energy of Santorini’s caldera. The wind is so strong, you can smell the sulfur, and the image of the giant rock wall of the island approaching is just incredible”.
The athletes were brought by boat to the starting line, in the water at the harbor of the volcano. 31 minutes and 34 seconds later, Arniakos crossed the finish line in Fira, earning him second place, two seconds behind his fellow team member Dimitris Negris.
The three mixed-surface terrain running routes, designed by former marathon runner and Greek classic route record holder Nikos Polias, follow steep paths over the hills along the caldera and feature enchanting views of the volcano and the picture-perfect scenery of Imerovigli, Firostefani and Oia.
The 5 kilometer “Aristides Alafouzos” route is suitable for both running and power walking, whereas the 10 and 15-kilometer routes are for experienced runners who aim for strength, endurance and adrenaline.
Santorini Experience is designed for everyone. If you’re fit to walk, run or swim, you’re welcome to take part alongside the professional athletes. Amateur swimmers even have the option to use snorkel and flippers, though their time will not be officially recorded.
Additionally, in an effort to make both the island and the event more accessible, participants and their companies (escorts and family members) enjoy discounts on ferry tickets, car rental and accommodation.
Organized by the Active Media Group in cooperation with the Municipality of Santorini and the Municipal Sports Cultural Environmental Organization of Santorini, Santorini Experience has proven a success in many aspects, not least as an event that cleverly incorporates sports tourism with the existing tourism industry on site – sometimes even becoming yet another excuse for romance.
As Akis Tsolis recalls: “Every year has its own highlights. One of the most memorable moments was back in 2017, when we became part of two really romantic moments as we organized marriage proposals after the finish of both the running and the open water swimming races. The guy in the swimming race carried the ring in his swimsuit for 2.4 kilometers! Can you imagine the pressure of swimming with that?”