The scene when you sail into the port of the Saronic holiday island of Aegina is one of incredible cleanliness and neatness as a municipal street cleaner carefully picks up every piece of trash, every cigarette butt, however hard to spot. But this image is shattered just a few meters down the road, as you wander into the town’s backstreets and see mountains of trash that shock even the most hardened city-dweller and provide evidence of the magnitude of a problem that has blighted this beautiful island for decades.
Aegina is back on the brink because of a problem that has been allowed to fester even though it tests the limits of residents and visitors alike. The municipal authority appears unable to find a solution for the ever-growing problem of the island’s waste management. There’s always some excuse or other that can be traced to petty politicking, administrative ineptitude, extreme negligence or a desire to cover up sins.
Greece is expected to receive more than 30 million tourists this year, as geopolitical factors in the broader region have made this country one of the world’s leading destinations. What have we as a country done to make the most of this opportunity? Without dismissing the very worthy and effective efforts from some quarters, we must also look at the bigger picture, at the country’s infrastructure, at the day-to-day operation of the state and at the standards of the services being offered. We must also address the issue of respect: toward tourists, both Greek and foreign, and on the part of tourists toward the country. Tragic events like the death of the young American in a bar fight on the island of Zakynthos, for example, are not infrequent and are undoubtedly linked to excessive alcohol consumption. They are a sign of something – and it’s not just bad luck.
Tourism boosts the economy, but it also exposes and magnifies a country’s structural problems in equal measure. It shines a light on its persistent ills, on deeply rooted mentalities that are all about easy gains, on the reluctance of politicians and local authorities to find solutions that may cost them popularity and on our inability to work for the benefit of the whole and put personal interests aside.
At the end of the day, what kind of interest can possibly be served on an island stinking of trash or another suffering the consequences of excess?