Greece’s landscape is its biggest economic asset, so why isn’t more being done to protect it?

By Georgia Logothetis, Managing Director, HALC

“If you deconstruct Greece,” the Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseus Elytis wrote, “you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.”

The simple and timeliness beauty of Greece is legendary — it’s captured the fascination of Homer, Elytis, Lord Byron and millions of modern-day tourists who flock to Greece throughout the year to bask in its liquid gold sun, swim in its crisp blue waters, and hike in its majestic mountains.

Greece’s coastline is the 11th largest coastline in the world (pretty amazing for such a tiny country). But Greece is more than just beaches. As the Greek Tourism Office reminds us, visit Greece and:

A tapestry of landscapes with an amazing array of biodiversity and ecological value will unfold before your eyes: in national parks, waterfalls, rushing rivers, lakes, wetlands, mountain ranges, even volcanoes on Santorini, Nisyros and Milos. You’ll soon discover just how much variety such a small country can display.
Swans in the wetland of Agra Vryton (DiscoverGreece.com)

It is indisputable that tourism is the beating heart of Greece’s economy. Earlier this summer, the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) “announced that it expects a record-breaking 30 million international visitors to Greece for 2017. This represents a growth rate of 7%, or an additional 2 million additional visitors over the previous year. 900,000 U.S. travelers are expected to visit the country this year. For the last two years, Greece’s growth has been nearly twice the global industry average of 3.9 percent, as reported by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in January 2017.”

Konitsa Bridge and the Aoos river (DiscoverGreece.com)

Tourism accounts for almost 20% of Greece’s GDP and accounts for 1 out of every 5 jobs in Greece. It’s tourism alone that’s fueling Greece’s recovery: 80% of new jobs created during the crisis have been related to tourism. As one small business owner in Greece put it, “Tourism is our lifejacket.”

Which raises the question: if tourism is so vital to Greece’s economic resurrection, why isn’t more being done to protect and preserve that which draws tourists to Greece?

Tourists don’t travel to Greece to see graffiti in Athens, garbage piled up in main thoroughfares or heaps of rusted cars and appliances strewn on a mountainside. Most travel to Greece to see the Greece they read about in history books and poems or the Greece they’ve seen on Instagram. Granted, those outlets have always provided a filtered view of Greece, but they have managed to capture the essence of its rugged beauty.

The blame for such circumstances falls squarely on both the shoulders of the polluters (really? you left your plastic Avra bottle and cigarette butts on the beach because you couldn’t bear to walk them 10 steps to your car to dispose of later?) and local and national governments for both failing to properly manage Greece’s refuse problem as well as failing to properly crack down on the polluters.

In fact, the government won’t even crack down on itself. In a long-running case, the European Court of Justice has punished Greece for repeatedly failing to clean up its illegal landfills which do not comply with EU environmental legislation. There’s even a landfill within Zakynthos National Marine Park, a nesting ground for the loggerhead sea turtle, a WWF-classified “priority species.”

the landfill at Zakynthos National Marine Park

Meanwhile, Greece’s famous beaches are increasingly becoming polluted. Years ago, it was reported that untreated industrial and household waste water were polluting popular beaches; the issue has only gotten worse since then. Back in 2007, Reuters highlighted the increased risk for oil spills by permitting polluting vessels:

Greece is also staunchly backing its powerful shipping industry’s opposition to an EU directive against polluting ships.
This position will grow in importance with the completion in 2009 of a Russian-Bulgarian-Greek oil pipeline that will run from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to north-eastern Greece.
Larger oil tankers will criss-cross the Aegean than those that can currently sail through the narrow and congested Bosphorus Straits, heightening the risk of oil spills and potential environmental disasters.

We saw the consequences of such an oil spill this month, when the Agia Zoni II tanker sank “while anchored in calm seas and carrying 2,200 tons of fuel oil and 370 tons of marine gas oil. The ship’s cargo spilled into waters where dolphins, turtles, seals and a variety of fish and sea birds feed and live. Oil slicks have extended from the island of Salamina, near where the tanker went down, to the entire length of the Athens coast.” The government has been criticized for its apparently slow response to the spill, exacerbating the environmental damage to marine life and the coastline.

World Wildlife Fund Greece

Pollution is just part of the problem, however. Not only are local and national governments too slow in cleaning up past messes, they’re quickly creating new ones.

In a rush to add jobs to a weak economy, a new wave of development is being approved with little consideration of the long-term impact on local communities and Greece’s tourism sector as a whole.

In 2014, for example, Greek politicians drafted a bill which would have, among other things, “restrict the longstanding public right to unhindered access to the coast,” “legalise existing illegal developments on the coastline, upon payment to the public purse of its “objective value,” “facilitate beach concessions primarily for the benefit of bars, umbrellas and summer beds,” and “encourage permanent constructions on the beach for business purposes.”

That bill was shelved after a massive public outcry. But on the islands, the short-sighted rush to allow lax development on Greece’s beaches is unabated.

Yes, Greece is desperate for money. But leasing or selling Greece’s famous beaches to the highest bidder while simultaneously weakening regulations and laws is short-sighted. Greece need only look westward toward Italy to see that such development will cause massive damage, not just to the environment, but to the country’s brand as the Mediterranean’s jewel:

In a report entitled “Coast to coast cement”, the [WWF] said Italy’s Adriatic coastline was the most badly affected, with more than 70 per cent covered in urban development in an almost unbroken strip of concrete stretching from the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in the north to Puglia in the south. […] Italians’ love affair with the seaside has left much of their coastline suffering from ugly development.
The few areas that have not been covered in concrete are often saved only by the extreme steepness of the terrain, as in the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terre of Liguria and a few parts of Tuscany.
The mania for building has affected every one of the country’s coastal regions, but the most ravaged were Sardinia, Sicily and the Adriatic, WWF said.

Or look to Spain, where the situation was so bad several years ago, the government stepped in and bought miles of coastline. As then-ministry official José Fernández said at the time: “The coastline has to be protected. It is under threat from both rising sea levels caused by global warming and from construction.”

A beach in Crete

That type of talk is what’s needed in Greece, now more than ever. Development should proceed in a smart, forward-thinking manner that takes into account not just environmental concerns about flora and fauna, but one that appreciates that Greece’s rugged, pristine and open coastline is its flagship asset.

Protecting Greece’s landscape requires a change in mentality, both among the Greek population and among their elected officials. Greeks themselves need to recycle more and take initiative to clean up their private property as well as refraining from polluting public ones. Governments at the local and national level must prioritize clean-up and then work with the business sector to create partnerships which strike the right balance between job creation and environmental preservation.

Preserving the natural beauty of Greece isn’t just a selfish act that will increase tourism and create more jobs for the current generation.

As the proverb goes, “society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Let us plant new trees of environmental conservation, so that future generations can see the beauty of Greece reflected, as Elytis wrote, in that timeless olive tree, grapevine, and a boat in a glimmering Greek sea.

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