INSPIRED BY THE erotic poetry of Sappho, who was born on the island 2,600 years ago, many languages—including English (“lesbian”), Greek (“lesvia”) and Japanese (“rezubian”)—use the demonym of her birthplace to describe sexual attraction between women. This linguistic fact has spawned a growing tourism industry in Sappho’s birth village of Eresos, in a remote corner of the island of Lesbos. Joanna Savva, a local travel agent, estimates that 3,000-4,000 gay women now visit Eresos every summer, up from under 1,000 a couple of decades ago. The village has only 1,500 full-time residents, but three lesbian bars. Hundreds of tourists attend a women’s festival every September, where activities range from political discussions to beach parties. Many visitors to Eresos keep coming back every year, and some have even stayed on to run businesses. “I immediately fell in love with the place,” says Katie Kalt, who runs a café in Eresos from May to October, but designs data-management systems in Switzerland during the winter. “I felt very accepted.”
Although locals on Lesbos are now friendly towards lesbian visitors, this was not always the case. Homophobia used to be widespread. Ten years ago, three islanders even tried to reclaim the word “lesbian”: they unsuccessfully demanded that Greek courts ban its use to describe gay women. But attitudes have since softened considerably, as lesbian tourists have filled hotels, bars and restaurants in Eresos. As Ms Savva puts it, “People here have learnt the value of the pink dollar.”
Its value may have appreciated in recent years. Media attention during the migrant crisis in 2015, when the island became the entry-point to Europe for hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers, scared off many visitors. Only 44,000 came last year, down 40% from 2015. But Ms Savva says tourist numbers in Eresos, which is also far from the camps, proved resilient.
Lesbos is not the only Greek island to attract gay tourists. Nearby Mykonos has developed a reputation as a frenetic party hotspot for gay men. But with acceptance of homosexuality growing across the rich world, some wonder if places like these will appeal to future generations of gay travellers. Lillian Jensen, the Norwegian owner of a lesbian bar in Eresos, says many younger lesbians “want to go to more mainstream places”. But for now, she remains optimistic about Eresos’s prospects. “There’s nowhere else in Europe quite like it,” she says.