As development disrupts the nature and culture of the Greek islands, locals push back


Faced with a flood of foreign visitors fueling seemingly uninterrupted development on the once-pristine Greek islands, residents and local officials are beginning to fight back, acting to stem a wave of construction that has begun to cause water shortages and is disrupting identity. unique culture of the islands.

Tourism is crucial in Greece, accounting for a fifth of the country's economic output, and communities on many islands depend on it. But critics say development has gotten out of control in some areas, particularly on islands such as Mykonos and Paros, where large-scale resorts have proliferated in recent years.

Teachers and other professionals on those and other Cyclades islands, a popular cluster in the Aegean Sea, have struggled to find affordable housing amid an influx of visitors and home buyers, fueling growing protests by locals over the repercussions. of unbridled tourism.

The islands, at the forefront of Greece's tourism boom, face increasingly urgent calls to preserve their natural and cultural heritage.

The number of foreign arrivals to Greece broke another record in 2023, with 30.9 million in the first 10 months of the year, according to the Bank of Greece, a 17 percent increase from the previous year and surpassing pre-pandemic tourism levels. .

To meet that demand, 461 new hotels opened on Greece's southern Aegean islands between 2020 and 2023, according to data from the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels compiled by the Athens-based Research Institute for Tourism. Of them, 126 were opened last year, according to the institute.

The proliferation of swimming pools has put serious pressure on water supplies on Cyclades islands such as Sifnos and Tinos, and the aggressive expansion of coastal bars on pristine beaches on many islands has sparked a backlash from locals.

Conservationists and architects are also leading an effort to preserve the character of the Cyclades, which they say risks being erased amid a real estate-driven homogenization of holiday destinations.

The Athens-based Museum of Cycladic Art, which exhibits the unique marble figures that were produced on those islands in ancient times and influenced the course of Western art, is working with local authorities and associations to the same end.

Greece's Tourism Minister Olga Kefalogianni recently promised that unbridled growth would no longer go unchecked.

“We have a clear vision and objective for the sustainability of destinations and our tourism product,” he said last month at a conference in Athens. He said that in the future there would be greater emphasis on protecting the natural environment and cultural identity of individual destinations, and legislation would be drafted to support that effort.

Those pushing for change are not convinced.

“It's very easy to talk about sustainable development, but all they really do is approve new investments,” said Ioannis Spilanis, former secretary general for island policy at Greece's Transport Ministry and now head of the Aegean Sustainable Tourism Observatory.

Spilanis, originally from Serifos, was one of several experts who spoke at a conference in November in Mykonos about how tourism has “radically changed” the Cyclades. The event was organized by local authorities who recently appealed to a higher Greek court over a project for a five-star hotel complex and superyacht marina. (The court allowed the development but reduced the size of the marina.)

Nikos Chrysogelos, a former member of the European Parliament for the Green Party who launched a Cyclades-wide sustainability initiative, said developers were overlooking the unique features of the Cyclades and treating them as city suburbs.

“You used to see farm buildings, dry stone walls; there was harmony in the landscape,” said Chrysogelos, a native of Sifnos. “Now you see roads, hotel complexes, high walls. It could be Dubai or Athens.”

Nikos Belios, a secondary school principal and head of the local farmers and beekeepers cooperative, said Sifnos had experienced an influx of investors “from all over the planet, who built colossal structures, like fortresses, with huge walls” to serve the needs. rich. tourists.

“They arrive, load their Cayennes, Jeeps or Hummers and lock themselves in,” he said of the tourists. “They have no interest in Sifnos; for them it is a dot on the map.”

Last year, Maria Nadali, mayor of Sifnos, urged the Greek government to curb “dazzling” tourism development, including banning the construction of more private pools and “cave houses” built into mountain slopes, a trend that , according to her, was altering the “unique architectural morphology and physiognomy” of the island.

The Museum of Cycladic Art has also become involved, trying to help the islanders protect the natural environment and heritage of the islands. The museum runs programs on eight islands, with themes including the preservation of the ancient marble quarries of Paros, the source of many Cycladic antiquities, and the documentation and promotion of traditional water management practices on Andros.

“We are trying to help them protect their heritage,” said Kassandra Marinopoulou, the museum's executive director and president, citing increased tourism, the abandonment of local traditions and the effects of climate change as key threats.

The initiative also aims to support cultural tourism on the islands, with digital walking tours and the promotion of local cuisine, said Marinopoulou, whose family is from Andros.

“We don't want Cycladic food to disappear because younger generations sell the family tavern and turn it into a sushi bar,” he said. “What a visitor wants is authenticity. “They don't want to see something they've seen in Ibiza, that's not authentic.”

Amid the glut of five-star hotels, some companies are seeking to promote “slow travel” as an alternative model that supports local communities rather than marginalizing them.

One of them, travel startup Boundless Life, exposes foreign visitors to local culture with pottery workshops, textile factory tours and Greek lessons. “When choosing new Boundless locations, we are very interested in identifying cultural gems and protecting them,” said Elodie Ferchaud, founder of the travel startup, which has brought dozens of foreign families to Syros for three-month stays.

But many Cyclades natives say a total overhaul of Greece's tourism model is needed.

“We need to find a way to survive,” Spilanis said. “Destroying the very assets you are sitting on is not the way.”

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