Sometimes it takes good old street campaigning to get those “up there” to listen – and things are done. Greece, during the last years, has seen turbulent times, and as a destination still has a long way to go in terms of sustainability, as Theodota Nantsou tells us in this interview. As Head of Policy at WWF Greece she works at the coal face of environmental policy-making and has a particular interest in tourism – not least because it is such an important part of the Greek economy and crucial for the livelihoods of its communities, especially in rural areas.
Theodota, do you remember the first time you heard about sustainability in connection with tourism? What got you interested in the topic?
Ah, a long time ago, in the early ‘90s, when I worked as a volunteer at a sea turtle conservation programme on the island of Zakynthos. Zakynthos, particularly the area of Sekania, hosts the largest density of sea turtle nests in the entire Mediterranean – a true maternity house for the legendary Caretta caretta.
Those nights, crawling under the stars behind turtles to monitor their nesting activity, were truly magical. But each time I turned my eye towards the tourist town of Laganas, filled with noise, lights, uncontrolled urban sprawl, and speed boat craze, the magic would quickly fade.
It was then that sustainable tourism became a much-heated topic of endless discussions. I still vividly remember discussing sustainability with Antonis Nikoloudakis, owner of a large hotel on the coast of Laganas. If memory serves me well, Nikoloudakis was the first hotel owner in Greece who would pay due respect to the nesting turtles by voluntarily turning off all beachfront lights, closing the beach bar, and collecting all sunbeds and umbrellas at dusk.
How has your view on tourism and sustainability changed or evolved, as Head of Policy at WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] Greece?
A lot! Actively listening to stakeholders is an integral part of good policymaking. This is especially true when dealing with environmental policies.
Nature is not a personal piece of property or just a bouquet of memories. Nature is our life support system. It is perfectly reasonable that people need to visit beautiful natural treasures.
Ages ago, as a young nature conservation volunteer, I remember despairing of the future of life on Earth and viewing mass tourism as a destructive force that can never become sustainable. Seeing the results of important environmental policy wins, the urge of tourism business leaders for innovation, and the power of collaboration, I gained confidence in the power of collaboration, consultation and meaningful communication as tools for impactful change.
The tourism industry can also prove extremely powerful in halting destructive plans, such as drilling for oil and gas, which threatens treasured ecosystems with irreversibly damaging impacts.
Acknowledging that environmental damage from high impact activities would be detrimental to the very essence of their own business activity, tourism business people often become local “environmental activists”.
Maria Lougari in her interview referred to you as one of the key forces behind the establishment of the Zakynthos National Marine Park. From a policy perspective, how long does it take to put such an area under special protection – what is the process?
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the bay of Laganas experienced a boom of uncontrolled tourism development. A significant part of the important nesting beach of Laganas was lost to permanent umbrella and beach bed structures, beach bars, restaurants, boat anchor points, strong lights, and noise. The marine area was roamed 24/7 by speed crafts and glass bottom boats that killed an average of 20 sea turtles each summer and caused excessive noise pollution.
Of the six remaining beaches, Sekania and Kalamaki were seriously threatened by tourism development plans, whereas Dafni was seriously impacted by illegal land uses.
As a result of growing international pressure, Laganas Bay was finally designated as a national park. The 1999 presidential decree zones the area according to its importance and has been very effective in conserving the remaining sea turtle nesting habitat. It has also provided the entire island of Zakynthos with a valuable brand asset: the sea turtle is a famed attraction for visitors from all around the globe.
It is really encouraging to hear that responsible and innovative tourism business women, like Maria Lougaris, consider nature conservation as an asset for the sustainable development of tourism. They are true ambassadors for positive change.
Forest fires are an unfortunate but common sight in Greece and other Mediterranean countries. To what extent can a focus on strong sustainability strategies make destinations or communities more resilient, when a crisis hits?
Wildfires are not just an unfortunate sight. In 2007 and last year, Greece mourned the tragic loss of 186 people in mega-wildfires of unprecedented intensity and speed. Fires will only get wilder as the climate crisis deepens. The protection of key natural ecosystems is now a matter of life and death. The coastline, flood basins, and forested lands top the list of natural shields against the impacts of climate change and by far excel when compared to costly artificial infrastructures that try to replace destroyed protective ecosystems.
Tourism infrastructures and investment plans need to respect coasts, waterways, and forested lands and avoid at all costs encroaching on these valuable ecosystems. This is not merely a matter of preserving nature, but also of taking nature-based precautions against the potentially deadly impacts of catastrophic events triggered by climate change.
Most destinations feel the consequences of climate change in one way or another. How is Greece affected, and how do destinations in the country adapt?
All studies on the projected impact of climate change on Greece are grim. As over 80% of tourism and recreation activities are located along the coastal zone, the current model of uncontrolled encroachment on this sensitive part of Greece’s natural land needs to change.
Stress on water resources, a waste generation beyond management capacity, energy over-consumption are just a few of the aspects of the skyrocketing footprint of tourism in Greece. A recent report by the Bank of Greece found the expected impacts of the climate crisis on Greek tourism to be very heavy: unstable climatic conditions, loss of important destinations due to sea-level rise, excessive strain on natural resources, increase in discomfort index, and increased risk of wildfires.
The challenge is clear: tourism businesses need to innovate fearlessly in the sustainability and climate resilience of their own assets and the local environment. Developing energy self-sufficiency based on 100% renewables, actively protecting the natural ecosystems of their areas and avoiding all encroachment on the coastline and forest lands are key sustainability indicators.
Currently viewed as voluntary standards of excellence, zero-carbon and low ecological footprint tourism destinations need to become the norm.
What role does the sustainability of tourism play in the larger context of sustainable development and wildlife conservation, in Greece?
Considering that tourism is the main economic activity generating almost 12% of GDP in Greece, while also demanding a lot of space (usually in areas of scenic landscape and natural ecosystem value) and resources to develop, achieving sustainability is an absolute necessity.
Many towns in Greece continue to lack the necessary infrastructures for safe waste management, including flagship tourist destinations, such as Santorini. In 2017, the regional authorities inspected the illegally operating landfill at the site “Alonakia”, on the world-famous rocky caldera and just a few hundred meters from 5-star hotels. The Municipality of Thira was ordered to pay a financial penalty of 15,000 euros. Can you imagine Santorini marring its landmark landscape by burying its vast volumes of waste on the rocks?
Sustainability is not only a matter of individual tourism businesses. Institutional policies and a robust system of environmental infrastructures, such as zero food waste and sustainable waste treatment, a zero-carbon electricity system, nature-based water resource management, are vitally significant.
If asked to develop environmental policy for a nature-based destination in Greece – how would you go about it? Which would be the main criteria or aspects to focus on?
I think we can safely say that the guiding triptych for living tourism in natural areas is to learn – conserve – reuse.
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Mapping the valuable ecosystem assets of the area and its conservation objectives would be the first step in setting the green bar for tourism development. The so-called “natural capital” of the destination will be its key selling point, hence knowing and actively protecting the wealth of life and the ecosystem-based services are the basis for the brand strategy of any nature-based destination.
Another key issue is knowing which of the existing infrastructures and built environment can be reused to keep the footprint and use of space to the base minimum.
Dozens of abandoned villages are scattered all over Greece, primarily in areas of notable landscape and historic value. Many in mountainous areas, others on islands, these silent settlements need to liven up through touristic uses, with the maximum possible fidelity to their historic character and lowest possible footprint on the environment.
Needless to mention the necessity of employing the best available practices for integrated environmental management of all operational aspects: zero plastic and food waste, excellence in energy conservation and use of 100% clean energy sources, non-polluting transport means are just a quick list of the basics for all sustainable tourism destinations.
Collaboration is a crucial requirement for successful conservation and destination management. How could such collaboration (for example between tourism businesses and destination managers) be enhanced and incentivized, through policies or regulations?
Collaboration is indeed crucial. Apart from voluntary collaboration schemes, it is important that collaboration is promoted through institutional measures as well.
Key to meaningful and impactful local engagement on sustainable tourism is the collaboration of tourism businesses with the management bodies of national parks and Natura 2000 areas (that is, areas protected under EU nature law). Either in the framework of developing mutually engaging plans for the development of sustainable tourism activities or in ways that generate valuable income for nature conservation, the officially designated protected area managers are key players in the sustainable development of tourism.
The financial and economic crisis of Greece has pushed it into news headlines in recent years. How has it affected tourism sustainability?
Greece’s economic crisis has served as the platform for environmentally perilous policies. All government policies favour the construction of large holiday compounds all over the country, endowing them with state subsidies, even within ecologically sensitive and protected areas. The Parliament has also repeatedly legislated for the legalisation of illegal developments, a destructive policy that deprives the national coffers of valuable revenues from the collection of the financial penalties stipulated under previous legislation.
We also saw repeated attempts to deregulate the coastal protection legislative framework, for more intensive uses (incl. tourism investment plans) to be allowed along the fragile coastline. On two occasions, in 2014 and 2019, environmentally dangerous regulations were finally withdrawn thanks to the massive public outcry.
Alarmed by the heavy toll of the environmentally aggressive tourism policies promoted during the crisis, in 2014, twelve environmental groups issued a joint statement calling on the members of the Greek Parliament to reject a particularly detrimental legislative proposal. “How reasonable does it sound to cut the arm that feeds you? Irrational? Foolish? This is exactly what the Tourism Ministry is doing, through the draft law […]: in all the country, it destroys nature, which is undoubtedly the main tourism product of Greece”.
Although many businesses are shining examples of green excellence, sustainability in the tourism sector remains a huge challenge to be won.
Where do you see opportunities to be seized in Greece right now, in terms of making its tourism offerings more sustainable and encouraging responsible travel?
In 2013, WWF Greece published a landmark strategic report for sustainable development in Greece. Titled “A living economy for Greece”, this was a thorough mapping of the opportunities for a healthy and innovative revival of our country’s battered economy.
On tourism, one of the uncharted opportunities was described as “recycled villages” and called for the renovation of currently abandoned villages to house visitors in the quest for authentic and low-footprint travel experiences. Renewing empty buildings and communal spaces “builds on” history and valuable local narratives, while also taking advantage of existing infrastructures.
There is a huge tourism potential for depopulated areas, such as Mount Grammos, parts of Crete and many Cycladic islands, which are often geographically connected with sites of great ecological significance and are often full of valuable historic memories.
Turning abandoned settlements into tourist villages could well constitute the focal national policy for tourism, with support via all necessary political and institutional interventions. For example, spatial planning and state support policies need to focus on mapping and promoting the reuse of existing buildings and infrastructures, instead of promoting tourism investments on undeveloped natural land.
Thank you, Theodota.
Connect with Theodota Nantsou on LinkedIn.
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