NEWS

Tourism, real estate define group of islands

At the beginning of the 1990s, a group of researchers from the University of the Aegean’s Environmental Department decided to examine the characteristics of the Greek islands as well as their persistent problems. Professor Yiannis Spilanis, a Cyclades native, leads that research group. He spoke to Kathimerini about the group’s work. How have the Cyclades changed over time? The islands used to have a very specific role: They were centers for either provisions, shipping or mining. But, with time, these economic activities waned and more traditional ways of work, such as agriculture, were neglected. People started to leave the islands. Then tourism changed their course. However, it did not change the image we still have of these islands in the winter: They remain «regions of exile.» What opportunities do island residents have if they don’t work in tourism? Over the last 10 years, many islands have discovered real estate. That seems to be the case everywhere in Greece – real estate and tourism. At the same time, we have arrived at a point where we don’t know which of these activities will prevail. The bright point is that the small islands cannot support big operations. Is the construction trend here considered sustainable in the long term? There is the danger that it will create dead communities. [Building] owners sometimes stay in their homes, sometimes not, and if they don’t live there they rent [the space] out. The owner doesn’t care if there is a permanent population here year-round. There is another danger: Many islanders sell their land and cultivate the false impression that all will go well afterward. They buy a car; they buy a house for their children in Athens; they do other things – all on incomes that may not be stable. They go through that money and then they have nothing left with which to support themselves. Unfortunately, everyone seems to be trying to figure out a way to make the islands another version of Athens. But, on another level, they seem to understand the islands’ permanent residents, who say, «Why should we be second-class citizens?» But the gamble is elsewhere: How can the islands retain their way of life and have it be of good quality? How can something like that happen? First of all, islanders must feel secure about their health needs; healthcare by telephone or in theory won’t do. Instead of putting all our energy into widening roads with the idea that this will bring in tourism, we should focus instead on basic essentials, such as creating proper human services. But there should be jobs, too. Rural businesses work with existing conditions to create a livelihood, but they also find a way to be entrepreneurial. The Cyclades are characterized by their small size and small populations. They have less water than other islands, so it’s hard to farm there. Yet people do farm there and yield high-quality products. I don’t understand why an islander must look for work in Athens, where unemployment is a problem, and then compromise when they can’t find a job by working as a cashier at a supermarket in Athens. However, in the winter islanders are dependent on the sea and the weather’s moods even for the simplest things. The restricted schedules of ferries don’t help them there either. An important issue on the islands is the lack of public services, such as healthcare, education and transportation. Of course, these problems can’t be solved easily because they require a lot of money and that just doesn’t exist. However, public services should have become part of island policy. One of the most important things that happened this year is the Asterias program, which expedited the development of a Citizen Service Center, which allows the islander to go to his municipality and solve his issues without having to travel. This changed things fundamentally because until then a resident from Serifos had to go to Milos just to get his taxes done. Sometimes [in winter] he had to go all the way to Piraeus to get to Milos. Compared to the rest of the Greek islands, what makes the Cyclades stand out? They hold a great card in their favor with their tourism. They work well with tour operators. The Cyclades have the luxury of having little organized tourism, which means tourists pay more and hoteliers there will make more money. The money gets spread around, and tourism is in good shape.