The dark side of the stunning Greek island of Zakynthos

The dark side of the stunning Greek island of Zakynthos

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The first thing to notice about the Greek island of Zakynthos is its beauty.

Engulfed by the bright turquoise of the Ionian Sea, the island boasts golden sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs and woods so captivating, they were a favourite spot for godly twins Artemis and Apollo, according to ancient myths.
The second obvious thing about Zakynthos — which is also known by its Italian name, Zante — is that it’s a party island. The resort village of Laganas, especially, is a magnet for young holiday-makers who pack its nightclubs, boat parties and beach festivals every European summer, including now. In a similar vein to Spain’s Ibiza and Thailand’s Koh Phangan, Zakynthos is a non-stop party in picture-perfect paradise.
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But the world is starting to realise something else about Zakynthos — that its carefree antics have turned really toxic.
A worrying spate of tourist deaths, including a fatal bashing just last week, have cast a spotlight on the island’s dysfunctional tourism industry.
On Friday last week, American university graduate Bakari Henderson, 22, was bashed to death by a group of men outside a Laganas bar, reportedly because of an argument over a selfie.
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Greek police said Henderson, from Texas, had become involved in a heated confrontation with bar customers and two employees after he asked for a photo with a waitress. Video surveillance from the July 7 incident shows him running for his life before being fatally bashed in just 30 seconds.
Friends said Henderson wasn’t one to act aggressively, the Washington Post reported. Nine men have been charged over his death, including six Serbian nationals and a British man.
Henderson isn’t the first tourist to have died as a result of violence on the holiday island.
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British tourist Matthew Cryer was killed outside a Laganas nightclub in 2008. Greek police initially said the 17-year-old died from excessive drinking, but a UK inquest a year later found Cryer — who had suffered 20 injuries — had been “unlawfully killed”. His family believed he had been attacked by four nightclub staff, but a Greek court eventually ruled out legal action against the men.
And in 2011, another British tourist, 19-year-old Robert James Sebbage, was stabbed to death after getting into a he and some friends reportedly shone laser pens in the eyes of taxi drivers in the early hours of the morning. One driver pulled out a knife and fatally stabbed Sebbage in the heart, and was eventually sentenced to 16 years and four months in jail over the murder.
This week, Zakynthos’ mayor Pavlos Kolokotsas told local media that mere hours before the death of Bakari Henderson last Friday, police and authorities had met to discuss a fresh crackdown on alcohol-fuelled violence.
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But violence is only part of the problem in Zakynthos, a resort spot especially popular with young Brits, Italians and Australians.
Last month, a tourist from Cuba was killed when she lost her balance and fell from a cliff while trying to take a photograph of one of Zakynthos’ most famous attractions, a 37-year-old shipwreck on Navagio Beach.
Earlier this year, a Greek man died while taking a selfie at the same site, and in 2016, a Chinese tourist drowned while swimming at the beach. After that incident, local authorities decided to recruit life guards for summer tourist seasons.
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While the party atmosphere of Zakynthos is no secret, drinking on the island has taken a number of very dark turns.
In May this year, young British holiday-maker Hannah Powell revealed she ended up blind and with ravaged kidneys after unwittingly drinking dodgy booze while partying on the island.
Ms Powell said she had eight vodka cocktails on an organised bar crawl. Less than two days later, she was fighting for her life in hospital — the “vodka” she was served has been laced with methanol, which left her legally blind and on dialysis.
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In 2008, a local doctor told The Independent he often investigated rape complaints by women who said they had gotten so drunk, they couldn’t remember whether or not they’d had sex. That same year, Reuters reported nine British women had been charged with prostitution in connection with an oral sex competition on Laganas Beach. Tourists had reportedly been paid to compete and the footage was released online.
Zakynthos wasn’t always known as a hotbed of rowdy behaviour. It used to be a much quieter pit-stop for travellers on the Ionain side of the Greek mainland. Massive development over the past few years has turned Zakynthos into a major tourist destination, and a revelrous rival for islands such as Mykonos, Ios and Crete.
Antics grew ever wilder and by 2014, a writer for Vice Greece said Zakynthos had become “a Mecca for sexually depraved English tourists”, which locals had no choice but to put up with.
“Every summer, young people from Britain, Germany, Australia, and Italy board EasyJet and Ryanair flights to some Greek island with a mission to spend a few days crawling around half-naked on its streets,” the writer said.
“Because we’ve been told our economy needs the tourism, for years locals have turned a blind eye to the foreign debauchery by largely staying away from places like Laganas, Faliraki in Rhodes, or Malia in Crete.”
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Some residents on Greek’s infamous party islands seem to have had enough: locals in Kavos, Corfu, have started up a Facebook page shaming drunk visitors who flock to their costal village every summer.
The page is flooded with photos of tourists passed out in streets, slumped over toilets, injured from drunken mishaps and sporting terrible tattoos.
Back on Zakynthos, it remains to be seen how authorities will crack down on violence and other bad behaviour as its mayor promised this week.
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In the meantime, friends and supporters of Bakari Henderson have raised more than $66,000 (A$85,000) to cover funeral expenses and bring his body home from the island paradise which — for a growing list of tourists — turned out to be hell on earth.
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