According to the European Commission’s “2009 Environment Policy Review”, the environment is by far the number one reason for choosing a destination in the EU.

In Greece, tourism is the most dynamic and extrovert economic sector and contributes an annual 16% to the national GDP. During the past four decades, its growth has skyrocketed, reaching 14,918,177 foreign arrivals in 2002 from 462,857 in 1961. This equals to an almost 30 times increase. According to the World Tourism Organisation, in 2007 Greece welcomed 18,754,593 tourists, ranking 15th globally.

However tourism is not only about numbers. For decades, holiday infrastructure development has been driving the loss of Greece’s main tourism product: its natural capital. Tourism monoculture, spreading primarily along the coastline and on the islands, unplanned sprouting of infrastructures in extra-urban and natural areas, illegal land development and constructions even within sites of exceptional ecological significance, such as the National Marine Park of Zakynthos, are the most pressing problems. Their impact is obvious: loss of unique landscapes and ecological treasures that should have been conserved and promoted as the superstars for tourism in Greece.

The strategy of the Tourism Ministry nourishes the same model. In a law voted by the Greek Parliament in June 2013, the ministry promotes large holiday compounds all over the country, even within ecologically sensitive areas, many of which are protected under national and EU legislation. The law also provides for the legalisation of illegal developments, a destructive policy that deprives the national coffers of valuable revenues from the collection of the financial penalties stipulated under previous legislation. At the same time, the law doubles the fine for free camping, a move which has understandably attracted ironic comments and much criticism.

In a joint statement, 12 environmental organisations called on the members of the Greek Parliament to reject the legislative proposal. “How reasonable does it sound to cut the arm that feeds you? Irrational? Foolish? This is exactly what the Tourism Ministry is doing, through the draft law […]: in all the country, it destroys nature, which is undoubtedly the main tourism product of Greece”.

In November, Tourism Minister Olga Kefalogianni announced her strategy for the attraction of more tourists to Greece. She obviously forgot to mention Greece’s main tourism product: the words “environment” and “nature” were totally absent from her speech.

A flawed model of tourism

Rushing to serve the Tourism Ministry’s vision of wealthy tourists spending fortunes in vast newly built tourism enclaves comes the entire Government. The economy and development ministries have clearly shown their support to this model, by including beneficial terms and incentives in their policies and laws. Alarming concerns however arise from the policies promoted by the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change. Environment Minister Stavros Kalafatis announced a shocking draft law, which clears currently protected landscapes and natural lands that cover almost 15% of Greek territory from protection status under the Forest Code. If this draft law is submitted to the Parliament and voted, then the classic Greek coastal and mountainous landscape and many endangered species may become part of future history books.

The Mediterranean has suffered from the sprawl of uncontrolled and often illegal tourism development. Thousands of holiday homes remain unsold and the vast majority of beds remain empty for many months each year. The unique countryside of Greece and Spain is dotted with abandoned hotels of all sizes and stars. There exist too many characterless holiday accommodations for tourists seeking unique, affordable and quality experiences. New tourist towns have sprung up, deserted and haunted during the winter. Famous destinations dot the landscape, lacking spatial planning and essential environmental infrastructures, such as sustainable waste management systems and access to adequate freshwater resources.

An alternative the protects the environment and tourism

Recently, WWF Greece unveiled its vision and roadmap for “A living economy in Greece”. The proposal analyses the necessary reforms at the horizontal levels of governance and economic and social policies and describes the priorities and paradigm shift for sustainable reforms in real economy sectors, such as tourism.

Greek tourism should achieve the highest possible economic benefit, in combination with the highest possible level of natural capital conservation and sustainable management.

A new ecologically and financially viable tourism model needs to constitute a dynamic part of Greek economy, without degrading the capital it is based on, i.e. the natural and cultural heritage. The utilisation of existing built lands and abandoned buildings should rank as top priority. Especially as Greece is rich in abandoned villages in areas of stunning beauty, both coastal and mountainous, their renovation for tourism use and their interconnection with common historic and natural narratives will pour life into impoverished rural areas and offer unique experiences to the visitor.

Greece’s breath-taking natural riches are the country’s precious natural capital. It is this capital that attracts investments. It is this capital that Greece needs to conserve and manage sustainably and smartly, in order to carve a living future not just for tourism, but for its entire economy.

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