Freedom and the beach

The Greeks’ relationship with their beaches reflects their relationship with their natural environment and with each other. Every inch of coastline is public property and, therefore, should be freely accessible to every citizen – and yet, at the personal and state level, we do not do enough to protect this invaluable asset. Free beaches are a fundamental right of free people in a free nation: No matter who you are or how much money you have or don’t have, you have an equal right to enjoy its coastline – where the hard land meets the sea of infinite possibilities. The meaning of freedom is rooted deep in the Greeks as heirs of a long history of resistance against foreign occupiers and local tyrants. We may not be rich, we may not be free of worries but we are all equal, are free to express our opinions and we are free to spend time on the beach, free to share in a beauty that cannot be bought and cannot be restricted. This is the manifestation and confirmation of democracy. But it would seem we accept seeing our treasures leased to the highest bidder and then we pay for the privilege of using them. It is ironic that today one can find umbrellas, sunbeds, plastic chairs and so on even on beaches that until a year or two ago were among the most remote in the country. Our services sector has gone crazy: People are capable of setting up businesses that provide expensive, high-quality services on the remotest beach but we still struggle to get a plumber, painter or taxi driver who knows his or her job. Although the Greeks guard their right to bathe at any beach and some mayors have made much political hay out of crusades to tear down fencing along coastlines, we have not appeared overly concerned by the fact that more and more beaches are over-exploited by businessmen and by the municipalities that grant leases to the highest bidder or to those with the necessary connections. Several beaches on Attica’s Saronic Gulf have been leased to private companies that charge a fee for bathers to enter. This, however, is the exception. There have been organized protests and denunciations in the news media on the occasions that hoteliers or rich property owners have tried to usurp the public’s rights to free access to beaches. One media baron was even sentenced to jail (he did not serve any time) for building a jetty and changing the nature of the coastline adjacent to his holiday villa. The umbrellas and beach loungers are another story: They may not hinder people’s access to the sea but they have become so ubiquitous as to seem a permanent fixture on our coastline. Municipalities, which were recently given sole authority to choose which beaches they will exploit and to whom they will lease them, get a significant amount of revenue from this. Several societies and nongovernmental organizations have begun to express concern that this will lead to excesses and could affect the public nature of beaches. The Greek Ombudsman has proposed a number of measures that would ensure that companies be kept in check and that people, including those with special needs, are provided with free and easy access to the sea. Thanks to the vigorous response to every threat, it would appear that the Greeks are not in danger of losing their free access to the sea. However, if we want to show our own devotion to this idea and if we want to defend our right, each citizen should play his or her part. We must demand that municipalities ensure that our beaches and seas are kept clean – and we should be the first to make an effort to protect our environment by not adding to the plague of litter and by making the effort to clean up wherever we see a problem, not expecting someone else to do it for us. Freedom has its responsibilities.