The Erimitis debate

The Erimitis debate

My tweet about the development at Erimitis in Corfu seems to have offended many in Athens. That was never my intention, and for that I unreservedly apologize.

But the ferocity of the response to a single 120-letter tweet both in mainstream and social media implies that a non-Greek is not welcome to express opinions on any Greek matter, even if, as in my case, he is a Grecophile with a distinguished Greek step-grandfather and an almost 50-year association with this great country. I am therefore especially grateful to Kathimerini for providing me with this platform.

My criticism of the Erimitis development is not political, nor does it have anything to do with self-interest. It is based on trying to achieve what is best for the local people of this pristine area, many of whom I grew up alongside.

A place like Erimitis, whatever its local significance, will be regarded by some voices in the mainstream media as merely an unused building site which it is wrong to protect when the country needs more jobs and more inward investment. These same voices equate “progress” with foreign investment and the building of mass tourism resorts. Further down the coast closer to Corfu Town, resorts of this kind built in the 1970s are being bulldozed to make way for luxury private villas.

Traveling all around Greece, which I do every year with my young family, reinforces my belief that the future of tourism in the country lies in green and sustainable villa development. One only needs to look from Kos across to the urbanization of Bodrum and ask the economists what type of tourism will bring the best long-term environmental and economic benefit to Greece. One can point to how a single high-end luxury development, Porto Montenegro, changed the economic development of a nation. Butrint too, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1992, brings in over 200,000 high-end tourists every year to Southern Albania who spend money across the local economy rather than being confined in a resort.

In Tuesday’s English edition of Kathimerini, it was suggested that the Rothschild family has tried to stymie development in Albania across from Corfu. This notion is simply wrong: The Butrint Foundation has worked for over 20 years to protect Butrint and develop it responsibly into a major world cultural heritage site. Visitor numbers are up fourfold in the last 10 years; indeed, Butrint receives about 20% of the total visits to all cultural sites in Albania. It is a significant accomplishment which has fostered tourism and economic development on a scale unimaginable when it began, a time when very few people even knew or cared about Albania.

We can learn from the long-term vision shown by successive Albanian prime ministers in protecting the natural ecosystem surrounding Butrint. Their foresight is apparent to every single visitor to Corfu and it is the principal reason why future generations of Albanians can be confident that their national treasure is in safe hands.

The developers behind Erimitis have no such vision. But they do have strong political support at the highest levels of the Greek government. Adonis Georgiadis, minister for development, whom I met last year at a lunch in New York, has an honorable mandate to attract as much foreign direct investment into an economically ravaged Greek economy. Superficially, a €120 million mass tourism development in northeast Corfu ticks all his boxes.

The Erimitis development will, however, never work. The regional infrastructure is not in place to cater for mass tourism in northeast Corfu and Erimitis is too far from the island’s small airport. Even the main arterial road to the north is single track in places. The developers have promised that the hotel will remain open all year around. No credible hotel operator will agree to this. I struggle to see how this mass development can compete today against equivalent Turkish resort projects selling cheap villas and apartments just minutes from major international airports when the lira has depreciated by an eye-watering 25% against the euro this year alone.

Indeed, Greece’s success in arresting the spread of Covid-19, in stark contrast to Turkey, provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity for this government to signal that it is moving away from blanket support of mass tourism towards a greener and sustainable model that is infinitely better suited to the post Covid-19 era. In the long run this will be far more profitable and more environmentally friendly to its local populations. It also fits seamlessly alongside the new Golden Visa program Greece is poised to introduce in 2020.

My father had the vision to bring his family to northeast Corfu more than 50 years ago. That decision was a small contributing factor in the creation of a vibrant local economy, a mini-real estate boom, and a balanced ecosystem. This, I would argue, is exactly the type of model Greece needs on its islands and coastline to complement its agriculture and industry. The development of Erimitis under the current scheme would risk everything that has been achieved in northeast Corfu in the last 50 years.

Nathaniel Rothschild is the CEO of Volex PLC, a UK listed manufacturing company.

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