Greek tourism and the environment: On the edge of a precipice

Greek tourism and the environment: On the edge of a precipice

On Tuesday, October 6, we sent a letter to the Greek prime minister, the responsible ministers and the Pissarides Committee on a key issue that may inadvertently undermine Greece’s future. The letter, drafted with the help of a team from Elliniki Etairia – Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage (Costa Carras, Vassilis Fourlis, Phokion Potamianos, Stathis Potamitis, Costas Stamatopoulos, Markos Veremis), was co-signed by 60 prominent figures and friends of Greece in areas spanning environmental and cultural protection, trade, industry, shipping, services, tourism, construction, arts, science and local authorities.

The breadth of support for our letter underscores how critical this issue is, yet we hope that it can also be turned into an opportunity in disguise, as the Greek development plan is being finalized.

All signatories appreciate the need to promote investments that can revitalize the Greek economy and believe that development and environmental protection must work hand in hand. That said, we are also concerned that the excitement with investments being pushed through (especially in tourism and energy) may inadvertently undermine Greece’s long-term financial, social and environmental prospects.

We are concerned that Greece’s comparative advantage in tourism is currently at immediate and serious risk. We should not encourage large-scale tourist development projects in environmentally sensitive and culturally rich areas such as small Aegean islands. Rather, we should encourage development around existing settlements or reviving withering villages that could reinvigorate local economies.

We should encourage alternative forms of tourism, such as medical tourism, rambling / trekking, diving and sailing, which have a longer season, attract higher-income vacationers, are better connected to other sectors of the local economy (such as primary production) and are more likely to engage smaller local entrepreneurs (as with agritourism).

Greece’s nature preservation areas, such as those in the Natura network, are of crucial importance for the development of alternative forms of tourism. We are delighted to see that, after a 15-year delay, Greece will finalize the necessary management studies, which will show where investments may be sited in Natura areas. We recommend no investments with a heavy environmental footprint should be permitted in such areas in the meantime, as acknowledgement that tourism and energy development require a robust and consistent strategy.

The EU’s emergency support package, with its emphasis on Green growth, provides an opportunity to guide the development of tourism in the required direction. Despite its importance for the economy and the environment, Greece lacks a coherent tourism strategy, whether short, medium or long term. We urgently need to develop one, which will boldly redefine our target, away from mass vacations for a few summer weeks (which must be accommodated, but from now on as secondary) towards long stays including second homes, retirement homes, integrated resorts and alternative forms of tourism, all of which would be of great benefit to the economy overall.

Islands like Mykonos and Santorini are already saturated or close to saturation. Overdevelopment in small islands risks imposing similarly dramatic costs, so we need to manage capacity and direct tourism development accordingly, moving rapidly from an emphasis on low skill service provision and mass use of beaches with unfettered spread of sun beds for a short season, towards sustainable forms of tourism with higher added value, some described above. This will require planning, ongoing coordination of all stakeholders involved and infrastructure improvement – not least of which is sewage, often planned on the basis of the permanent rather than the actual population in the tourist season.

Second, in most countries in Europe, whether they focus on tourism or not, there are no blanket permissions to build and zoning restrictions are religiously observed. In Greece, building in rural areas was encouraged, perhaps, to deal with a dramatic shortage of housing in the post-war period but is no longer justified. We commend the current efforts under way to create a healthier balance as an important step. We also think priority should be given to electric cars, starting with prosperous but polluted islands, and to reducing the ecological footprint of cities through bioclimatic design, improved insulation and use of shallow enthalpy.

Third, we suggest it is urgent to revisit the planning system in the light of EU best practice. In Greece, the proper structure of national/regional/municipal plans has been effectively sidelined by reliance on special sectoral plans (e.g. for tourism, renewable energy sources, fish farms etc.). The consequence is conflicting proposals, e.g. for wind farms on Milos / Kimolos which have substantial geothermal resources that could supply half the Cyclades with the cleanest possible electricity.

While we are ardent supporters of renewable energy, the impact of wind-turbines on Natura locations or areas of exceptional natural beauty, such as Polyaigos and Sikinos, need to be considered explicitly and related to other features of regional development. There are a number of regions that can help generate renewable energy without adverse side effects that undermine current or future cultural, environmental and touristic resources. The use of geothermal energy and the development of offshore wind farms in suitable locations, should be strongly encouraged.

Currently, local authorities are consulted on regional but not sectoral plans since these cover the whole country. The risk here is that they suddenly discover they may themselves be victims of decisions based on sectoral plans about which they had not been consulted. Central administration and local communities should be collectively addressing the tradeoffs between environmental preservation and development, which might then lead to investment proposals that would be acceptable.

Finally, we believe there is an imperative need for better coordination. The Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) and the Ministry of Tourism need to be strengthened and creatively reorganized, with an emphasis on sustainability, perhaps under the supervision of the prime minister himself. Particularly in the light of the urgent need to adapt to climate change, Greece needs to grasp the opportunity offered by the current EU support package, with its emphasis on sustainable development, to build the necessary competences at all levels of administration.

The government has a valuable role to play in adding to the Greek economic plan a clear articulation of the need for a local development strategy, which balances tourism and the environment. It should focus on sustainable development in respect of tourism, so that we can bequeath a country that has not been degraded by uncoordinated investments. It will be a real challenge for the public administration, but the stakes are high.

Michael G. Jacobides holds the Sir Donald Gordon Chair of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School where he is professor of strategy. Lydia Carras is a documentary film director and president of the Elliniki Etairia – Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage.


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