CULTURE

Low-impact eco-tourism

Concern that mass tourism is turning large sectors of Greece’s coastline into concrete jungles indistinguishable from beach resorts all over the world has led to an interest in eco-tourism (holidays aimed at experiencing the uniqueness of a country’s natural habitat) which also includes agro-tourism (allowing tourists to experience life on farms). Private entrepreneurs, individuals and environmental groups, alarmed at the destruction of the unique natural landscapes that attract tourists in the first place, have, for some time, been promoting forms of tourism that focus on appreciating an area’s natural environment, its history, culture and local products. However, until now, there has not been any comprehensive approach to the way eco-tourism has been carried out, nor even common understanding of what it actually entails. Earlier this week, the Development Ministry held a press conference to announce a massive investment (37 million euros) for promoting eco-tourism this year. In its recommendations, the Development Ministry suggested the adoption of principles, such as those laid out in the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism, as a basis for development. These principles include regular planning, management and assessment, particularly of the considerable funds being made available on a national and European level, and the involvement of the local community in the decision-making process. They also include taking into account the limitations of the capacity of the natural, social and cultural environment to accommodate visitors. And although the idea of restricting numbers might not be popular initially, local industry will soon realize that eco-tourism, where the emphasis is not purely on beach holidays, means a much longer season. Another myth is that eco-tourists are low-budget spenders. According to a US study, typical eco-tourists are aged between 35-54, divided equally between both sexes, and of above average education (82 percent have a tertiary degree). Some tour operators have approached international organizations to express concern at the way public funds are used for tourism. Nature Trail Amorgos promotes eco-tourism on the island of Amorgos with an emphasis on walking tours, photography and painting, botany and herbs, ornithology, traditional Greek cooking, and local history. The company, headed by Paul Delahunt-Rimmer, recently wrote to the European Parliament to express its concerns about eco-tourism on the Greek islands, now that hotels and apartment blocks have, almost overnight, turned many unique settlements into mere «tourist resorts in the sun.» «The sudden, unplanned way this development has taken place (…) has resulted in badly positioned, unsightly electricity installations strewn over beautiful villages, unneeded roads bulldozed through the countryside digging up areas of outstanding beauty and habitat for rare flowers, previously stunning landscapes are littered with building sites,» the company said. «Grants should only be made when a detailed study of the effects of any expansion is considered and ample funds proven to be in place for completion. Consideration should be given to renovation and extension before new works are approved,» said the report. What this means is that instead of building new concrete hotel complexes, one could renovate traditional houses; instead of building new tavernas, existing ones could be improved, keeping the physical changes to a minimum to limit the environmental impact. It is hoped that the State’s renewed interest in alternative forms of tourism, even if only as another Olympic Games image-booster, will result in more widespread awareness and perhaps cause the effective planning required to make eco-tourism properly understood and carried out.