Greece Tourism Ministry says “Sustainability is a Non-negotiable Priority for Greek Tourism.” Speaking before at the opening ceremony of the Philoxenia – Hotelia duo exhibition at the Thessaloniki International Exhibition Center on Friday, Greece’s Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis called for action to preserve Greece’s natural and cultural heritage.
Unfortunately, nowhere in the tourism ministers remarks were there any concrete strategies that can begin to mitigate the coming overtourism crisis. Minister Theoharis was quoted by GTP as saying:
“If we want to have tourists and a higher value-added tourism product while preserving our natural and cultural heritage, now is the time to take action. For the Greek government and the tourism ministry, turning our economy towards a more sustainable model of growth is non-negotiable.”
He also told the audience of the need for Greece to optimize the use of natural resources, and for preserving natural heritage and biodiversity, preserving cultural heritage and traditions and promoting quality tourism infrastructure with a low environmental footprint. But these are goals that have been in play since the late 1990s. And so far, no Greek administration has even made a minuscule effort to accomplish them. This is not conjecture, but fact.
The Santorini Case
Nowhere in Greece is there a more critical need for developing a sustainability plan than on Santorini. A bit of “policy” history on this ever-popular touristic attraction seems in order here. Back in 1996 work on sustainability by the Greek Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works concerning Santorini sustainability somehow surfaced as a footnote in a key report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Then in 2000 Santorini Island wine industry sustainability was the focus of this Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International study, which talked a lot about strategic choices. Researching to find media instances of academic reports on the subject, I was amazed at the sparseness of interest in the subject.
I was able to find that Greece (ironically) was the only one of 19 countries in the OECD 1996 study that had created an institutional mechanism for dealing with sustainable use of coastal zones. After 1996 though, there’s scant mention of Greece or Santorini sustainability for OECD or even the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP9 all throughout the 2000s. Where Santorini Island and sustainable tourism intersect, it’s as if today’s overtourism mess was never anticipated. It seems the only interest, then and now, has been to pump more tourists into Greece. In other words, sustainability is a marketing exercise for growth, and that’s it.
However, underneath the current of UN, EU, and World Tourism Organization profitability and competitive reports, key scientists were warning of a coming meltdown. In 2005, Professor Michael Romanos of the University of Cincinnati Sustainable Development Group presented a study plan and a model for environmental tourism in Santorini. Romanos led an interdisciplinary team to the island with an ambitious goal, to overhauling tourism there. The distinguished scientists had some great ideas. But it seems, nobody was listening.
Another distinguished expert, Dr. Godfrey Baldacchino was a leading researcher back around the same time working on island sustainability worldwide. This 2005 report entitled “A World of Islands: An Island Studies Reader,” contained the expertise and insights of 42 scholars and contributors. Scientists from around the world offered a unique collection of theoretical principles, ideas, observations and policy proposals from, and for, the study of islands and island life. Again, clearly, the Greek leadership paid little or no attention.
One of the themes these experts suggested was to turn the entire island into “a Cultural Heritage Park with tourism focusing deliberately on architecture, history, archaeology, and agriculture, rather than the waning sun-and-sand recipe popular for so long.” As far as I know, the island is not yet a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The point is, the overtourism Santorini and Greece are facing is not some overnight trend. And the current government knows this full well. Sadly, as far as I can discover, not one of the experts I mention in this story has been engaged by the Greek decision-makers. Dr. Baldacchino, who is
Avoiding the Obvious
23 years ago Greece was one of only six key countries studied that had established national-level coordination mechanisms to ensure sustainable development of tourism. The other four were Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, UK, and the US. Give this, it seems pretty pitiful that Santorini’s mayor had to limit cruise ship passengers on the island all by himself last year. Greece’s tourism minister has not addressed any of the past research on these issues, as far as I know.
Throughout the past two decades, most of the research and policymaking has been about growing Santorini and Greece competitively. For the last three decades, the only thing sustainable about Greece’s tourism industry has been promoting the destinations, seeking investment, and advertising paradise in the same vein as Florida or Las Vegas.
Even at the level of academic study, college professors discuss infrastructure and labor markets, and the effect of the eurozone on profits, but very little was done to prevent what’s happening now. I am not making this up. The numbers and the research is out there, clearly visible. For instance. In 2012, Santorini welcomed 838,875 according to the Greek Port Association. This total skyrocketed for the next years for many reasons, but mostly because business inside and outside Greece lobbied for it.
A good example of growth-tourism lobbying can be seen in the lifting of Greece’s cabotage laws which regulated the cruise industry for the country’s “unique” situation. Most people do not realize that Greece used to protect her maritime industry by making cruising and ferrying preferential for Greek ships. This is how big business managed to cram more cruise tourists onto Santorini and other Greek islands. This is a fact, as well.
For the local businesses, this seemed a windfall, at first. Only big cruise lines freed from the cabotage laws are not required to stay in port for long. Before, there were constraints that led to island businesses benefitting more from tourists. Without this legislation, a cruise ship docks, passengers get off and prowl around, and then they jump back aboard the ship to head to another destination. The hotels and every business on the island lose because the experience for traditional tourists is diminished. And resources are decimated. Funny that Greece tourism ministry is not bringing this to anyone’s attention. What if reinstatement of these laws, at least in part, would remedy part of the problem?
Good News & Suggestions
In fairness to local businesses and decisionmakers, there has been a lot of progress made to slow or in some cases mitigate the negative effects of tourism. Infrastructure issues like water, solid wastes and energy use are being addressed by most hoteliers and many local governments. But the focus on infrastructure, energy, and locally sourced products are mostly economic in nature. As Place Brand Observer put it in this 2016 report:
“Most of the pushes towards sustainable tourism in Greece are coming mainly from the demand of the global market (operators’ demand, new markets, differentiation of the supply, etc) or thanks to the personal interest of some hotel owners to create a more authentic experience for the visitor.”
In this report, Dr. Ioannis Pappas, who’s Director, Mediterranean Region at GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) goes on to suggest, “the most important step (for Santorini) is to investigate and strive toward certification as a sustainable destination.” For my part, the real first steps should be to include Dr. Pappas and Dr. Godfrey Baldacchino at the Greece sustainability table. And this is something else I am not seeing from the Greece tourism ministry or the other decisionmakers in Greece.