Environment and Public Works Ministry’s vision for tourism

In a country like Greece, where tourism plays a major role in the economy and the environment, the debate over the optimum tourism development model is a crucial political issue. The choice is whether to consume the country’s cultural and natural heritage – the legacy of millennia – within just a few decades for the sake of real estate developers, tour operators, financiers and stockbrokers, or to exploit that legacy in a sustainable way that will protect and highlight it. The Special Tourism Zoning report, issued for public «negotiation» by the Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works Ministry in cooperation with the Tourism Development Ministry, has led environmental groups – such as the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage – to seek its withdrawal, for the following reasons. It is not prompted by a need to confront the problems posed by unrestricted tourism development that is destroying the natural, built and cultural environment (which is what attracts tourists in the first place), nor does it draw attention to the risk posed by the overconcentration of these activities in certain areas. According to the Technical Chamber of Greece, the plan «places the greatest emphasis on facilitating investments and increasing tourism, rather than adopting the principles of sustainable development.» Secondly, it promotes the concept of holiday home complexes, that is tourist settlements of homes for rent by individuals; these homes would cover up to 70 percent of the total built environment. That means widespread concrete cover. By building private villages, major construction firms will be guaranteed profits even if the rest of the investment is not followed up. In areas designated as potential candidates for such units (for example the western Peloponnese, eastern Crete and Magnesia), large firms have already bought land. A particular threat is posed to the country’s still unspoiled areas where land is cheaper and there are no obstacles for potential buyers. Uninhabited islands and rocky islets, places of great natural beauty, are at risk of becoming static «cruise ships.» Even regions protected by the Natura program can be the target of tourism investors if they pay «a little more.» The new plan reduces the mandatory distance a hotel must be built from the shoreline to 100 meters (on flat land) or 50 meters (on a slope). For cases in between, a complicated mathematical formula is proposed, which will probably result in land-grabbing. Moreover the plan does not provide for the demolition of illegally constructed buildings on beaches. Nor does it envisage measures to stop widespread construction outside town limits, a practice that has long plagued the Greek countryside. Greece has great potential for winter tourism, for hiking, agritourism, cultural tourism and other specialized forms of tourism. Yet it is the lack of golf courses that Minister Giorgos Souflias draws attention to in the plan. «We have only six golf courses compared to 500 in France, 200 in Italy, 300 in Spain and 76 in Portugal,» he said. The facts that Greece is increasingly affected by drought and a golf course needs as much water as a town of 11,000 inhabitants do not seem to bother him. The plan also overlooks another approach that would protect and highlight local architecture and cultural attractions (as adopted in many parts of Italy). It makes no mention of developing local quality (and organic) farm products or of agritourism. Its entire philosophy is light years away from proposals such as the one put forward by the Hellenic Society: «New hotels should conform to the principles of bioclimatic architecture and be as autonomous as possible regarding the recycling and reuse of resources such as water and renewable energy sources.» This article first appeared in the June issue of ECO, a Kathimerini supplement.

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