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The unseen and insulting side of Greek Tourism that hurts, by Philia Tounta.

My lovely friend Philia is a hotelier and passionate about the environment. In this hard-hitting post she lays bare the massive problems with the ever increasing number of tourists that, unwittingly, are destroying the wonderful scenery that they have traveled so far to enjoy.

Greek Tourism in the 21st Century by Philia Tounta.

The unseen and insulting side of Greek Tourism that hurts.

Tourism: the lifeblood of Greek economy, Greece’s heaviest industry, and the life jacket in an economic crisis and so on; we hear ages now. But what has happened in Greek Tourism throughout the years? We have totally ignorance or we are just overwhelmed by profit? Whether we like it or not Tourism hurts. It hurts because it has been transformed to an industrialized monster that is managed by the elite of Tourism. Around 18 million tourists visited Greece during 2014; a number twice as big as Greece’s population. Nevertheless, back in the 1950s, the number of tourists that visited Greece barely reached 33,000. Of course, the situation in Greece at that time was entirely different; the country was trying to mend its wounds caused by the Civil War and the World War while the Greeks were trying to recover. Amid 1961 and 1990 the ‘trend’ of mass tourism started to dominate globally in the tourism sector. Greece of course was not an exception.

In 1990, the tourism sector reached its peak at a worldwide level. Mass Tourism is sapping the heart out of Greek culture. Until 1990, Greece’s development in the tourism sector was the fastest in Europe and at a worldwide level. From 1999 to 2012, the tourism industry of Greece was developing ‘slowly’ comparing to the pace of development in both the European and International tourism industry. After that, things got out of control and nowadays Greek islands are overcrowded full of cement, all-inclusive hotels, villas and bnb’s. The new spatial planning of Tourism just supports the building of new tourist residences in all kinds of areas: mountainous, protected, coastal etc. It has allowed building on a huge scale on all islands, regardless of size, and without taking into account their bearing capacity and their autonomy in natural resources such as water. As well as it has grouped up areas - like traditional and abandoned settlements - which they treat in the same way without taking into account their different characteristics.

In Greece the form of neo-liberalism in tourism appears mainly to be the pseudo dilemma of "environmental protection or tourism development". The answer for the pioneers and fans of the pseudo-dilemma is simple. Tourism "development" with fast track procedures without any environmental control, with Special Economic Zones of limited labour rights and remuneration, "exploitation" of areas included in the NATURA system, areas within residential buildings that could otherwise be green lungs, construction of tourist giants in coastlines and small islands. In these cases, we are not talking about "development", but for a quick and easy profitability for a few people at the expense of the environment, people working in the tourism industry and future generations.

Characteristic of this is last years’ announcement by the government of the 40 Greek islands and rocks that will be included in a rental list for the construction of tourist accommodation. Each year more and more islands become concreted by impersonal hotels, villas, etc. Specifically, Santorini faces overcrowd troubles with water supply problems, insufficient infrastructure, traffic jams etc. As the mayor himself notes “[t]here are more than 1,000 beds per square km, more than any other isle after Kos and Rhodes, and in a destination of only 76 sq. km, more than 700 restaurants, cafes, bars and bakeries – the vast majority concentrated in Fira, the main town”.

Similar problems with excessive tourism constructions and facilities face northern Kos, Mykonos, Patra, Western Corfu, Iraklion, and Western Mycenae. Samos is just starting to be developed and also just starting to be destroyed. Twenty years ago you would think you were in heaven. Now the islands are being covered with hotels. Additionally, on Mykonos, for example, a haven for European youngsters and homosexuals, the government-run hotel stands close to a traditional windmill. And I will go on, with the island of Skiathos, which offers +50 beaches, fishermen who used by tradition to sell fish straight from their boats now display shiny signs offering trips to Banana Beach. The villagers have opened +2000 rooms in their own houses in addition to the hotels; while masses of trash and tourists in sleeping bags are a common view.

On the tropical beaches of Crete, the extensive tourist exploitation threatens the natural landscape. Dear prospective travellers, Elafonisi and Balos are not paradise anymore; only a paradise of umbrellas and loungers. In Vathy Beach, Sifnos, the once “safe and quiet beach” has transformed to a lane for trucks, private and professional cars to park and load cargo. The same has become the enclosure of the holy temple Taxiarchis.

Allow me to make a short note here; the Greek Constitution (article 21 §1) states that the protection of both the natural and cultural environment constitutes an obligation of the State. The state owes to take special preventive measures for its preservation. But guess what, that is just a myth; since in Kalyves, Crete, Greece two all-inclusive hotels were built in just few months covering ancient findings while a house next to them was never build. To go on, in Lefkada problems generated by tourist development are still unsolved. The biggest problems identified are the problems of waste management, wafer supply and sewage pollution. Lefkada mostly gets water from the river Louros found on mainland Greece. However, some areas still have water supply problems in Lefkada since the construction of pump units has not been initiated in some of them yet. Also, tourism distorted the allocation of its resources quite drastically and set up importation habits that may be difficult to break in the future.

I continue with “The Caribbean islands” one might hear by the campaign that characterizes Syvota. But do you want to know the truth dear Greek Lovers? You will be lucky if the ship that makes the route Patra-Igoumenitsa has not left its dirt from its lanes, which reach up to a few meters from the coast. However, you will not avoid the dirt from tourist boats carrying beach holidaymakers as well as from private gasoline boats. Syvota was a small paradise back in the 1980’s with no or very few tourists. Nowadays, it has radically changed. Tourism development threatens the landscape as it involves large hotel complexes, country houses and exploitation of natural wealth. What about our soil? Well, scientists’ support that the fertile soil on many Aegean islands dries up, affecting the environment, agriculture, local economies and tourism. Cyclades islands face the greatest problems. However, the "nightmare" is faced with Ikaria and Crete - both in the mountainous area and in its southern regions, such as Sfakia. Guess one of the reasons; the unregulated tourism constructions-what an irony!!! YES, Greek Tourism has grown in visitor numbers, but the way they think and manage the increase in numbers is ineffective and hopeless. With all this tourism where are the industries to support this Tourism boom? I am not just talking about now but also in the past. Where are the Greek Glass manufacturers, ceramic manufacturers, cutlery manufacturers, table cloth manufacturers, etc., etc., anything that is involved in providing for this industry? Instead we Greeks import all of the above. All we do is build hotels and restaurants; that’s all!

There will always be a gap in the awareness on the nation of sustainability between the government and the local level. Although policies and plans on sustainable tourism development exist, to some extent, in Greece they are not effectively implemented. So is Greece over? “If you compare it to what it used to be the answer I am afraid is YES,” -- at the very least -- what many residents agree on.

The truth is that paradises have no future: they are just fragile perfections in a flawed world. Greece: a prior paradise; a pot of a frozen past, a victim of modernization. Greece in the beginning, it was mostly cultural tourism. Today, we are witnessing mass tourism. And that’s the very problem!” Any sense of control has been buried under concrete. There is absolutely no respect for the culture, for the environment, for our customs posing a risk to our social cohesion.

One can support that Tourism does not change morality or tradition but may I pose a “philosophical” question: "Did Greenwich Village altered the United States?" Greece’s tourism success is bittersweet!! Of course we want tourists, new constructions, and investments, etc. However, we are unable and incapable to properly control all these in order to smoothly operate. Greek Tourism needs guidance.

Future Projections: There are two scenarios for future development depended upon what role the Greek authority will play to mitigate the problems outlined before. Scenario 1: If the authority will not address any capacity constraints or sustainability principles, then according to Cooper et. al. (1999), the next step of the development will be the stagnation stage following by the decline stage. At stagnation stage peak tourist volumes will be reached and Greece will no longer be fashionable or a “paradise”. The extensive facilities that were built will no longer be used. This results in a decline of the prices and eventually of the product quality.

The other scenario is to support tourism that will maintain a balance among the traveller, the natural and social environment. It is imperative that the concept of sustainability will become familiarized by the Greek society. Only then, concerted action from the local governments and all sectors of the industry will secure long term future tourism development. If tourism is to be integrated into a country's development plan it must be well organized and developed according to a strategy built on solid foundations. These foundations should take account of the co-ordination of the tourism related sectors, and the supply and demand of the tourism product.

We do NOT need the type of "one-night stand" tourist in every European capital, nor the passer-by cruise ship passenger who has pre-paid everything. We have to look for authentic proposals that highlight the history and architectural heritage, cultural values, nature and landscape, gastronomy and Mediterranean diet and our Greek hospitality. All of the above offer our guests the opportunity to participate actively the days they remain in our country, in the genuine life of the inhabitants of our country and experience its culture in all its manifestations. We need to wipe out our old Greek Tourist images of "Ancient Greeks with shields and torches", "Retsina" and "Zorbas", as well as the predominant decades of obsession that the sun and the sea is enough to create a tourist product. We need to raise our voice to the dialogue on how our country will use tourism with respect for the environment and people in a difficult time for the economy, in a society that puts unequal burdens, and often projects a false dilemma of "development or environment"? Crisis will pass, but whatever will be destroyed now it will be destroyed forever.

I will finish with what Getty has once said “to get rich is the easiest thing”; stupid and uneducated people have become rich but to BE rich is an abyss; regardless of fortune or lack of it you must live with values.

For Greek people whether you want to hear it or not: tourism is “easy money” everybody can become a hotelier from a plain shepherd to the prime minister. No particular education, no limits, no ethos, no values, nothing! Whether you like or not, Greek Tourism is now an activity which has fallen to the hands of opportunists who seek to make easy money.

Once upon a time there was a paradise called Greece!

Philia Tounta PhD (ca), MBA, BA, Di General Manager Apokoros Boutique Hotel Craft Deco &Activities & Three Trees Activities Corner CRM Manager Thamiris Hotel/Apt/Villa Travel & Hospitality Consultant, Hotelice Peer Reviewer and Member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Management, David New York USA. Rapporteur/Freelance Author (traveldailynews, ehotelier, hospitalityexpert, etravelnews, etc.

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