Town planner voices his objections

Town planner Nikiforos Balatsinos, who undertook to draft the study for the ministry’s proposal, said in this interview with ECO that the joint-ministerial decision on the proposal does not reflect the work he and his associates carried out. What is your view of the Tourism Zoning report? Naturally it is better to have a plan than not to have one at all. However, this particular proposal takes no stand regarding town planning; the way it classifies space is piecemeal and often incorrect, and many of the targets are inconsistent with the stated provisions. Of course these could be corrected in the final version. Where my professional objections lie have to do with the emphasis on holiday homes… and I am afraid that it is the only part that is certain to be retained in the final plan. What is meant by the term «holiday home complexes»? It has nothing to do with what we understand by a «house in the country» but is rather a mixture of tourism and real estate that has developed in countries like Spain, but which is already in crisis. The plan proposes the construction of condo hotels, that is, independent homes within a hotel complex, sold to individuals who may rent them out to the hotel. Is there a demand for these in the Mediterranean? There is demand that has leads to pressure from the property market. We suggested first of all making use of the untapped potential of the hundreds, if not thousands, of abandoned settlements, where the built environment could be increased by up to 40 percent, in some zones, as an incentive for businesses. But this is not as attractive to investors who want immediate profits. However, the state could force them to comply. Unfortunately, our proposal was not adopted and tourism development is now being seen as a way of managing property. What kind of problems does it entail? First of all there are no restrictions, with the exception of the mountains. It does not exclude small or uninhabited islands. Since these kinds of investments require large expanses, they cannot be realized where land is expensive, but will be focused in areas of untapped tourism resources and abandoned farmland. Why would a firm want to build a village in this way rather than through private construction? Private construction is subject to the opinion of the Council of State, which is of the view that new settlements are not needed. It is true that one cannot really claim that we need 100 or 200 new settlements in Greece. Under the existing institutional framework it is possible for 20 percent of the total built area of major tourism investments to be sold. Initially we suggested 30 percent but went to 40 percent after recommendations from the authorities; however we consider this to be the maximum, if the business owner is not to focus solely on selling the homes. The ministry took it to 70 percent. Holiday home complexes, however, compete with tourism because they consume the same resources. Moreover, based on the provisions suggested, tourism homes take up twice as much space as hotels. Isn’t it rather bizarre for one of the town planners on the project to criticize the final proposal so strongly? I do not recognize the final text of the plan. I believe that the emphasis on promoting holiday homes of this kind is the result of politics rather than a professional approach. It looks to me more like a plan for construction. Who stands to benefit? Certainly the real owner stands to lose, as well as society as a whole, both this generation and those to come… It is an irreversible process. That is, we are about to sell off considerable resources instead of guaranteeing the continued sale of services and intangible assets. It is a closed undertaking between businessmen, banks and landowners. Is there any other way? It is the tour operators who design tourism in Greece. If it is no longer in their interest, they will go elsewhere. We will be left behind. We suggest ways that will broaden tourism activity in terms of space, time and content, even through the state coordination of tour operators, as happens in France. The joint-ministerial decision does not support this view. Greece’s advantages lie in the variety and quality of its tourism resources, not only its beaches but inland areas too. Can we talk about tourism growth? If we continue along the same lines, the age of «rooms to let» will seem like agritourism. Still, there is another way. There are places in Crete set up through local quality agreements, using local products and directed at more discerning visitors. That way they attract not only tourists but keep farmers in the district. Visitors who are aware of the value and uniqueness of tourism resources are surely allies in efforts to protect and promote them.

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