Selling off Greece stone by stone: commerce threatens innate beauty

Austerity and tourist excess is destroying an ancient land’s stock and beauty

Not for sale: the Acropolis of Athens. But many state assets in Greece are for sale through Taiped, an agency not unlike Nama. Photograph: Getty Images

Not for sale: the Acropolis of Athens. But many state assets in Greece are for sale through Taiped, an agency not unlike Nama. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Nearly four years ago, the German tabloid Bild suggested that, in return for the European Union bailout, Greece should sell off the Acropolis and some islands, including Corfu. Everyone laughed. And yet now it is happening. The International Monetary Fund-led troika has insisted Greece should sell state assets through Taiped (Hellenic Asset Development Fund) – an agency not unlike Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency.

Taiped is selling assets, from a disused mental hospital, a ski slope and a marina to all Greece’s regional airports, the national rail network, the water supply of Thessaloniki, and millions of acres of real estate, including gold mines worth an estimated €10 billion.

Deutsche Telekom acquired the Greek network some years ago and last year Azerbaijan bought the national gas company. The port of Piraeus, a controlling interest in Athens airport and the huge site of the former airport, are all up for grabs, with China doing most of the grabbing.

Islands? Last year, the Emir of Qatar purchased a small island within a Natura 2000 zone on which to construct a palace. The island of Elafonisos (on the southern edge of the Peloponnese), with stunning back-to-back beaches and also within a Natura 2000 zone, is listed by the Guardian as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. It’s up for sale.

Which brings me back to Corfu. In the island’s northeast corner, the pristine headland of Eremitis lies between the tiny fishing village of San Stefanos and Avlaki beach. David Shimwell, one of the world’s top botanists, knows the area intimately, and has identified Eremitis as possessing a collection of Arbutus (strawberry) trees and other vegetation of Mediterranean significance.

Taiped acquired the land (120 acres) from an individual in lieu of inheritance tax, and has sold it to US-based NCH Capital Inc for €23 million. NCH intends to spend €75 million on the development.

Deals appealed

Ionian Islands

Natura 2000 is the EU biodiversity network aiming at protecting threatened species and habitats such as Eremitis. But it is powerless. No environmental impact study of the site has been made, and recent legislation has allowed developers to circumvent such a procedure.

Inexplicably, this wetland ecosystem was held by the court not to be within the Natura 2000 zones in Corfu. There was a legal tussle as to whether the land had become “public property” or the “private property” of the Greek state. Despite the fact that all Greece’s coastline is irrevocably public property, the court said this was private and legitimately owned by Taiped.

With “biodiversity” such a global buzzword, it’s astonishing such an untouched site should be subjected to development which cannot fail to damage the environment. With a proposed development of hotels (5,000 beds), a shopping mall and a marina totalling 36,000sq metres, site-sensitive development is out of the question. By developing the site, the very amenity which attracts tourists will be effaced.

It’s a sad example of Greece’s dilemma: a desperate need to capitalise assets while safeguarding tourist amenities that earn 20 per cent of gross domestic product. Local businesses are divided. When you have to make a living from tourism in times of austerity, a new source of revenue is welcome. But the damage to an amenity which is a basic part of the tourism attraction also gives them mixed feelings. It’s the “price of progress”.

Tourism as disease

Gerald Durrell

A cynic would say “Corfu has already done so much irresponsible damage to itself so who cares about a bit more of the same?” But this is out of Corfu’s hands.

What function a shopping mall might perform in a remote part of a small island already replete with retail outlets is beyond the imagination. Marinas in Greece are mostly very small and very badly managed.

Corfu already has several disused hotels, including the huge Club Med which closed several years ago. It doesn’t need 5,000 extra beds.

What it is lacking is what Eremitis offers: unspoilt beauty of international significance.

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