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Sustainable Tourism in Crete

From the collection of Articles on Culture of BrainFitness Net -


by Nikki Rose

excerpts from an article first printed
in Stigmes Magazine, Crete

In the age of greater awareness of the negative impact pollution has on our planet, tourism is one of the Black Globe culprits.  Tourism is not an environmentally friendly industry.  Transportation, over-development and depletion of natural resources are but a few contributors.  International conferences focusing on this issue have produced suggestions referred to as "sustainable tourism." Loosely defined, inter-related categories are alternative tourism (nature and wildlife activities), ecotourism (promoting yet protecting natural areas from mass-tourism and development), and agrotourism (educational holidays in agriculture and culture to sustain the rural population).  The theory is easy to embrace -- where tour operators, local businesses and visitors alike genuinely appreciate and respect the culture and natural landscape of their resorts -- yet difficult to implement.

This concept of linking visitors with culture, nature and the environment in a
harmonious way is not a new idea, but one that is now viewed on a global scale.  
Long-term, successful community involvement has preserved many popular rural
tourist destinations such as the wine regions of Europe and the United States.  
Many rural communities have acted on instinct, rather than governmental
directives or support, and usually with enough individual investment to achieve

Foreign visitors are accustomed to, or expect, familiar settings that in no way
resemble the landscape or lifestyle of their host-country.  Local communities
relying on tourism are faced with these issues -- while attempting to maintain their
own cultural heritage and a clean living environment.  Over-commercialization can
wipe out an entire community in a few "trendy" years, leaving a wasteland of
burger joints and water parks behind.

A holiday spent exploring the countryside and quaint villages, learning about the
production of local cuisine and crafts can be a refreshing and rewarding break
from city life.  The informed traveler can also be directly contributing to the
sustainable tourism effort by supporting the communities working to preserve their
local traditions.

Crete has much to offer in sustainable tourism -- from one-day visits to ancient
sites or olive oil factories, traditional villages and folklore museums to week-long
nature and adventure tours, and "Green Globe" hotels operating on an
ecologically-friendly basis complete with organic gardens and bird sanctuaries.  Do
your homework to be sure that the program you are interested in is what it
purports to be.  “Ecotourism” has been mixed into many a commercial pot around
the world, doing more harm than good.  

Some programs are co-financed by the European Union's "LEADER Initiative"
program for the development of disadvantaged rural areas of the EU, launched in
1991. Eligible areas of LEADER are those lagging behind in development, fragile
rural areas, and areas with very low population density.  

Local groups submit proposals to the national/regional authorities responsible for
the implementation of LEADER and the selection of projects (the relevant Hellenic
Ministries in this case).  A lot of paperwork is involved to apply, which is daunting
for small-scale rural farmers who don’t have easy access to urban business
advisors.  Many villagers were not even aware of the existence of these programs,
and raised the question of selective promotion by local authorities.  

LEADER beneficiaries, called "local action groups" are a combination of public and
private partners.  It is inevitable that the amount of worthy applicants exceeds the
allotted funding for this initiative.  There are also a few related developmental,
environmental and cultural initiatives such as Habitat II, LIFE, SAVE, THERMIE, and
Natura 2000.  

The Greek branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is studying the
relationship between tourism and protected areas.  They conduct ecotourism pilot
projects and offer training programs and guidelines to local communities.  Among
the many projects they oversee are two model programs in northern Greece at
Prespa National Park and Dadia National Forest.  Eleni Svoronou, WWF
Coordinator of Ecotourism Projects, cautions that prior planning and certification
systems are necessary before the promotion of ecotourism can begin. "Programs
should have a definite, positive affect to both the physical and social environment,"
she said.  

During the peak tourist season in Crete, electricity and water sources are tapped
beyond limits.  Crete is suffering from increasing drought conditions, while
balancing agriculture with tourism as main sources of income.  Farmers and
hoteliers refer to the dilemma as the “seasonal water wars.”  Neither side plans to
budge, but hoteliers have more clout.  “Why do people travel to our beautiful sea
to swim in a cement pool?  Why do they need golf courses in our desert?  Don’t
they know there will be nothing to eat for dinner?”  Laments Yiorgos Spiradakis, a
farmer in Lassithi, Crete.  

Management of Crete’s resources should be of paramount importance, say the
unsung heroes of this island.  Renewable energy sources (RES) are a sustainable
key -- such as solar energy and wind energy alternatives.  Crete currently leads all
regions in Greece at 10% in RES electricity generation.  It’s a breakthrough but it’s
not enough to sustain Crete for even a decade, conservationists say.  
Communication is vital to promote the benefits of cleaner energy solutions.  “No
one wants metal windmills on their hills and no one can afford solar water heaters.  
We’re just surviving day to day as it is,” said Sophia Petrakis, a shop owner in
Chania, Crete.  

Hellas-Greenpeace is studying the impact of climate change and promoting RES
solutions.  Machi Siderdou, Coordinator of their Climate Change Program, said
that Crete has a vast RES potential which has not been exploited, and that "Crete
could be a model for renewable energy use."  Greece is under obligation to reduce
its dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels under the Kyoto Treaty protocol.  
The target set by the EU is to cover 20.1% of its electricity needs through such
"gentle" forms of energy by 2010.

During a state RES conference this May, Deputy Public Works and Environment
Minister, Ilias Efthymiopoulos, said that a comprehensive policy to reduce
emissions blamed for the "Greenhouse Effect" has not been developed in Greece.  
He cited opposition by local communities of RES units such as windmills and
hydroelectric dams as the greatest obstacle in employing such technology.  
Environmentalists say a potentially damaging oil generation plant is currently
under construction in Eastern Crete where wind energy could have been the ideal
"clean" alternative.  Also, waste recycling measures and the promotion and usage
of biodegradable products are far from adequate and require urgent
implementation.  Mass tourism exacerbates the problem.  

According to Nikos Charalambides, of Greenpeace's GMO Campaign, Crete could
also be a model for organic farming practices and the natural alternative to GM
engineering, due to her geographic location and climate conditions.  Greenpeace
is collaborating with farming communities to promote organic farming alternatives,
the practice of which is comparatively low in Greece, but steadily rising.

Major tour operators like TUI of Germany, Thompson's of the U.K. have designed
environmentally friendly rating and auditing systems for their destinations.  There
are a few hotel groups operating in an environmentally friendly fashion in Crete,
winning awards for clean beaches, maintaining their own organic gardens and
setting up innovative energy-recycling systems.  But, many large hotel complexes
cannot avoid their negative impact on the environment by the sheer presence of
their complexes within rural areas and depletion of natural resources.  They also
have no control over the unsustainable practices of the local community or area
businesses (refuse disposal, pesticide usage, etc.).  Even the popular noise, air
and water polluting activities like water skiing or jet skiing directly affect the
livelihood of the small-scale fishermen, not to mention endangering the lives of

[Editors Note:  Projects mentioned at the time of this article's printing are not
applicable to recently initiated projects or no longer in operation.]  

To date, there are no specific national strategies or EU directives pertaining to
sustainable tourism in Greece, and no management body to oversee current or
proposed programs.  There are surprisingly few major governmental or
nongovernmental projects specific to Crete.  But, small grassroots organizations
are getting stronger every year.  Environmental and local groups have stressed
the urgency of implementing an action plan -- not to maintain annual visitor quotas,
but to protect the island from rapid, irreparable damage.  Areas that have already
fallen victim to over-development risk the very reason for initial tourist attraction --
unique, quiet, clean destinations.  Visitors are moving away from these areas,
followed by the very same entrepreneurs seeking to supply (or create) demand for
potentially damaging forms of entertainment.  

Conservationists are working to encourage and train local entrepreneurs to
implement long-term, viable programs, inform visitors of the importance of
conservation practices, and advise tour operators to regulate the flow of traffic for
"simply cheap, beach holidays" to preexisting sites.  This way, they can try to
reserve protected natural areas for people who understand their responsibilities
and the value of protecting what they cherish.  

The underlying message is that Crete's inhabitants, whether permanent or
temporary, must play an active role in preserving her rich cultural history and
natural beauty.