Greece can once again be proud of its clean beaches and seas, following publication of the international list of beaches which have received Blue Flag awards for 2003. A record total of 373 public beaches have fulfilled specifications set by the international Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) regarding water quality, environmental protection and beach management. This year, 19 more beaches made the list than the 354 in 2002, up from 319 in 2000 and just seven in 1988 when the list was first issued. Of this year’s total, 25 are new to the list, although another 19 from last year did not apply for inclusion. Crete has the largest number (76) of Blue Flag beaches, chiefly in the prefecture of Lasithi, 32 of these in the municipality of Aghios Nikolaos. Next are the municipality of Kallithea on the island of Rhodes (15 beaches) and Sithonia, in Halkidiki, with nine. The southern Aegean islands, including the Dodecanese, won 46 of this year’s Blue Flag awards. Macedonia has 54, the Ionian Islands 44 and Thessaly 31. Attica’s millions of residents have only 10 award-winning beaches to choose from, and the island of Evia, surprisingly, has only two. In Attica, these are Schinias, Brexiza (Nea Makri), Avlaki, Mavro Lithari (Anavyssos), Varkiza, Asteras, Voula No. 1 and three beaches at Lagonissi. In all, 36 countries take part in the Blue Flag program (all of Europe plus South Africa). Last year, Greece was in second place behind Spain, which had 419 Blue Flags, and ahead of France with 286. Makis Apergis, general secretary of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature which administers the program in Greece, is optimistic that Greece will be able to retain its place at the top of the list when this year’s awards for the other countries are announced next week. In contrast to the beaches, Greece’s marinas do not present such a positive image. Only five received Blue Flags this year, down from seven last year and nine in 1999. They are Porto Carras in Halkidiki, Thessaloniki-Aretsou in Kalamaria, Olympic Marine near Lavrion, Attica, Xylokastro and Siteia in Crete. «It is very embarrassing when foreign experts ask about the state of our marinas,» said Aliki Vavouri, coordinator of the Blue Flags marina program. Turkey had 12 prize-winning marinas last year and is likely to improve on that figure this year. Beaches must fulfill the FEE criteria regarding clean water and coastline, facilities for swimmers, access for people with disabilities, lifeguards and life-saving equipment. Although the list does not include isolated stretches of beach or small coves preferred by many swimmers, it undoubtedly serves to point people in the right direction. Strict criteria There are 27 criteria to be met before a beach is awarded a Blue Flag, and 22 for a marina, the main ones concerning the cleanliness of the water and the beach itself, tested over two weeks by the Environment and Public Works Ministry, whose technicians take daily samples to test for water quality. They do not include beaches where industrial or urban waste, even if processed, is dumped. Other requirements include garbage bins and regular cleaning of the beach, the availability of toilets, trained lifeguards and life-saving equipment, plans for dealing with accidents that result in pollution, and bans on vehicles and camping on the beach. No pets should be allowed on the beach, and there should be information provided for visitors and a process for registering complaints. Municipalities may apply to have their beaches included in the program, as many hotels feel that beaches used by their residents deserve special mention. Private initiative has been much in evidence in regions such as the island of Rhodes and in Aghios Nikolaos, on the island of Crete, where the large number of Blue Flags is due to a great extent to the initiative of local business owners. The Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature continues inspections throughout the summer, and where standards fall, those responsible are given a deadline for correcting the problem or else the Blue Flag is removed, either temporarily or permanently. The society’s 16 inspectors removed Blue Flags from 11 beaches and two marinas last year, and another 24 in 2001.