Thomas Heyne, the ebullient German-born founder of new beachside hotspot Scorpios Mykonos, couldn't be more proud of his adopted home. "For beach clubs and hotels, I consider Mykonos the best destination in the world," he says. "Ibiza freaks who say they'll never go anywhere else come to Mykonos and say, 'Why didn't I come here earlier?’”
Mykonos operators see their small Cycladic island not as a challenger to Ibiza, but a more laidback alternative for savvy tourists. First of all, the numbers are very different: Ibiza drew 3.6 million airport arrivals in 2016, up 15 percent from 2015, according to officials. By contrast, the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE) tells Billboard that Mykonos, which has just 180 hotels, saw 290,000 international arrivals in 2016, with a projected 11 percent increase in 2017.
This growth has been good for the island's reputation as a sun-drenched dance music Mecca. In addition to a growing crop of luxe beach club/restaurant hybrids, including Scorpios and the nearby SantAnna, a new 1000-person capacity nightclub Void has opened in Mykonos Town. This flurry of new investment has played out against the backdrop of Greece's crippled economy. While insiders say the island felt the hit of the debt crisis around 2010, its tourism industry had regained strength by 2013.
Boasting beautiful beaches and an even Mediterranean climate, Mykonos has long been a popular LGBT destination, with a cluster of renowned gay bars in Mykonos Town. However for tourists seeking big-ticket DJs (and the guarantee of a party stretching well past sunrise), the gold standard is Cavo Paradiso. The 2000-person capacity open-air space, which opened in 1993 on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea, has maintained its reputation as one of the world's best clubs. No expense is spared on talent, either. Cavo's 2017 schedule swings from EDM draws DJ Snake and Alesso to techno icons Richie Hawtin and Sven Väth, while also welcoming next-gen stars Marshmello and Alan Walker for the first time this summer. (Prebooked tickets generally cost between 25 and 50 euros; a comparable event at Pacha Ibiza charges between 50 and 90 euros online.)
Coda Agency's Mike Malak - whose client list includes Dada Life, Bingo Players and AlunaGeorge - understands Cavo’s cachet with artists. "Because of its history, Cavo is one of those must-play clubs in Europe for DJs," he says. Cavo regulars Nervo, who first visited the island in 2014, tailor their big-room sets to a crowd diverse in nationalities. "We try to play all our hits because we love to see fans singing along in the crowd there," they say. "We normally finish our set as the sun comes up, so it's much later than a lot of our European gigs."
Cavo's general manager Margharita Antonini acknowledges the club's rare endurance. "We are one of a handful of electronic music venues worldwide that has been operating for nearly a quarter of a century," she says. Despite sharing many of the same acts with Ibiza's superclubs, Antonini sees no useful comparison between the islands. "Venues in Mykonos are constructed in a more natural way according to regulations of Cycladic islands tradition," she says. "Mykonos is also more intensely influenced by other cultures."
Before opening Scorpios in 2015, Heyne and his partner Mario Hertel ran Paradise Club, Cavo's longstanding rival for big-ticket acts. (Since their departure, the venue has rebranded, with new artist bookers, as the day club Tru Paradise.) "When we were in competition with Cavo, we definitely paid more than Ibiza for talent, because the agencies were playing ping-pong with us,” he recalls. During his Paradise Club tenure, Heyne looked for artists on the brink of blowing up. "There were DJs I booked for the first time in Mykonos for 3000 euros, and they hugged and thanked me for the opportunity. Three years later they cost 150,000 euros - and if the neighbor offers them 5000 euros more, that DJ is gone."
Sources tell Billboard that fees in Mykonos are usually consistent with a DJ's asking price in other European markets, while artists often accept a reduced fee in Ibiza because of the island's prestige. And unlike Mykonos, Ibiza favours season-long DJ residencies with a limited number of (coveted) guest slots. Malak confirms Coda’s number of Mykonos bookings has doubled in 2017 after three static years. "Artists speak to each other and the message gets around that it's an amazing place," he says.
In contrast to Cavo's all-night model, beachside day parties are a growing trend. Italian duo Tale Of Us, whose moody, evocative house sound is a hit in Ibiza, signed on for five "sunset sessions" this season at Mykonos's Alemagou Beach Bar. At Scorpios, the parties finish by midnight, with Heyne eschewing bank-breaking acts for a carefully curated experience. "If you deal with famous DJs, you're very easy to copy, because the only measure is who's playing tonight," he reasons. "People are looking now for an all-day experience, especially if they're on holiday with their families. If you're getting home from a club at 8am, the next two days are not your friend."
This shift towards sunset hours has popularized a deeper house sound on the island that's miles from EDM anthems. In step with that trend, Void's owner Jarrett Pasaoglou has targeted the likes of Damian Lazarus, Guy Gerber and Seth Troxler for the club's first season. "The music is changing," he says. "You can see it from Burning Man to Coachella to here."
Housed in a former cinema, Void is a novel proposition for the island. "In Mykonos, you're not allowed to build any more buildings," Pasaoglou explains. "Void will stay the only big indoor nightclub." Pasaoglou pursued the contract for the space with his father, who opened the enduring Mykonos beach bar Astra in 1987. The Void fitout includes sleek design and a Funktion-One sound system. "You can’t just open something and expect business in Mykonos," he says. "The clientele coming now has a lot of expectations."
There are few DJs in Greece who understand the scene as deeply as Mikee. The Athens-based underground techno veteran, who made his name as a DJ in the 1990s and now runs the influential label Deep Phase, credits Cavo Paradiso for putting Mykonos on the international map. "The island has the ability to create trends, not only to adapt to them," he says. "While Cavo holds the scepter in the Greek electronic scene, many clubs in Mykonos Town have risen and fallen since the early days, having no real musical identity beyond taking the commercial way." Mikee also sees the island’s growth as indicative of a wider trend. "It's not a revival of the golden age of the '90s - which cannot and perhaps shouldn't happen - but the electronic scene in Greece is gradually on the rise again," he says.
Doing business in Mykonos requires perseverance. The island's slow-moving bureaucracy and high operating costs (the value-added-tax rate in Greece is 24 percent) are frequently voiced frustrations. Meanwhile, working with clubs in Mykonos from afar has been for "an up and down journey” for Coda Agency. "It used to be a bit of a minefield, not knowing when the money would come in," Malak says. "There's definitely a handful of clubs we can rely on now." Void's Pasaoglou hopes to end the island’s expensive bidding wars. "I would love to be able to create a price list [for DJ fees] that we all follow here," he says. "It won't make sense for Mykonos to pay three times more money than other markets."
Despite the challenges behind the scenes, Mykonos now has more options than ever for dance music-seeking tourists. "The overall scene has broadened, with a greater variety in music and venues," Nervo agrees. "Mykonos also feels more local and less 'commercial' than Ibiza: you don't always need to make a table reservation at your favorite restaurant, but it's almost impossible to find a taxi." While it's far from a budget destination in 2017, the island isn't just for moneyed vacationers. "Mykonos still has that hippie feeling," Pasaoglou says. "The hospitality in Greece I don't think you can find anywhere else. Whether you're a billionaire or an 18-year-old backpacking, we want everyone to have a good time."
That promise of a good time—whether it’s greeting the morning at Cavo Paradiso, soaking in the sunset at a beach party or getting lost on the Void dancefloor—is turning more and more people onto Mykonos. However insiders agree that for now the tourism industry is growing at a healthy rate. “There’s limited space here, so everything moves more slowly,” Heyne says. “That’s good for the sustainability of this island.”
Mykonos's steady success is also a beacon of resilience in hard economic times. "Greeks are used to adversity," says Antonini. "We have been invaded and occupied many times in our 3,500-year history. We are still here and will continue to be."