OPINION

Ships and islands

From the time they settled on this peninsula and fanned out across its islands, the Greeks have been a seafaring nation. The demands of travel between distant ports, and the need to trade, drove the Greeks to conquer the seas. It was a matter of survival. Today the Greeks are the dominant force in international shipping, achieving this after the catastrophe of World War II, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit and seamanship of individuals who risked great personal danger in order to succeed. But there is another aspect of Greek shipping whose development determines the very future of this country the way it did from the start: the coastal shipping industry. This industry – which is the lifeline for goods, vehicles and passengers between the many islands and the mainland – is in a state of transition. It is dominated by an ever smaller number of companies. Also, a new generation of high-speed ships is replacing the conventional ferries. On the one hand, this is progress – providing modern vessels that cut travel times by half. On the other, the new ships require expensive financing and consume many more times the fuel of the conventional ones – at a time when fuel costs are at record levels. This leads to pressure for fare increases and, in turn, raises the danger of people avoiding the islands. Also, the transportation of goods will keep getting more expensive. On large islands such as Crete, for example, tourists will still be able to arrive via direct charter flights. But, in order to compensate for the more expensive air tickets (due to fuel costs), hoteliers and restaurant owners will have to lower their prices. For mainland Greeks wanting to holiday on an island, the price of a family and their car could soon be prohibitively expensive. In the case of the smaller islands, especially those not on popular routes, the locals worry that shipping companies will find ways to reduce the number of calls they make, especially in the off-season, when the new high-cost vessels will be almost empty. Aside from a possible drop in visitors, though, the higher cost of transporting goods will compound the islands’ problems. For example, farmers who depend on trucks to get their fresh produce to European markets might find themselves priced out of some markets, which will force them to cut initial prices to remain competitive. Less money will circulate at home. At the same time, goods imported to the islands will be more expensive. In other words, if fares keep rising, islanders’ incomes will shrink while their expenses will grow. This can only lead to a lower quality of life. People might choose to leave their island. Those who stay would be desperate to exploit their property: Instead of investing in high-quality projects that would increase revenues while protecting the environment, they might continue the destructive policy whereby every available piece of land is built upon, spoiling the islands’ charm, degrading their environment and undermining their future. A lot is at stake. The government and the shipping companies must work together to ensure that ferries serve the islanders and tourists efficiently and in the greatest safety. Only if the companies inspire confidence and remain affordable will they keep generating the traffic that they need in order to stay in business. It is a matter of survival – for them and for the islands.