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Greek tourism is being strangled by its own success

With increasing multinational hotel chains, minimal consideration has been paid to the impact on landscape, history, culture, or the lives of people

It is official at last. Parts of Greece, including the islands of Santorini, Mykonos, Corfu and Zakynthos, were last month designated as “saturated” as far as over-building is concerned.

A new Spatial Planning Framework divides the country into five zones, based on saturation levels and sets development limits. Also included in the “red” zone are parts of Crete, Rhodes, Kos and Tinos. In addition to the red “saturated-controlled” areas, there are blue zones which are “developed” but not yet saturated, light-blue (“developing”), green (“mild development-supported”) and grey (zoned for “special selective support”, whatever that may mean).

There is no question of banning building in the saturated zones, and there is some ambiguity about what will be permitted. The emphasis seems to be on high-grade hotels with plenty of ambient land. Cynics would say that the momentum towards large-scale developments will turn the designated blue, green and grey areas into red ones.

The entire planning – or lack of it – in Greek tourism is, indeed, a grey area. Illegal building, tax avoidance and tax incentives, the “fakelaki” or “little envelope” to facilitate planning applications, have made a mockery of good intentions.


The minister of tourism, Olga Kefalogianni, has said that the aim of the five-zone plan is to “create conditions for a more sustainable tourism product”. Sceptics would say that we have heard all of that from many of her predecessors.

“Product” puts the emphasis on the conveyor-belt aspect of business, rather than a skills- or people-based experience. Niche markets for a more “discriminating” clientele, such as skiing, wine and food culture, or mountain-walking, have remained just that: minority pursuits with little or no planned investment incentive or other forms of encouragement.

Despite the undeniable fact that tourism is Greece’s biggest industry (in terms of income generated and the size of the workforce), an almost total lack of national planning has created conditions in which a free market has been allowed free play. With the increasing trend towards foreign investment from multinational hotel chains, minimal consideration has been paid to the impact on the raw material: landscape, history and culture, or the everyday lives of ordinary folk.

In 2018 the then mayor of Santorini, Nikolaos Zorzos, warned: “If we do not do anything, the success will return as a boomerang against us. So we have to see what we can do to protect and preserve our uniqueness. The challenges we face are many. We are an island with urban problems.”

With increased leisure and cheaper air travel, mass tourism was going to happen anyway, but in Greece, as elsewhere, tourism is being strangled by its own success.

On the tiny island of Ios, people who are struggling to ensure that the island remains viable for small businesses have warned that favouring large-scale developments will not only push smaller operators out of the market but will damage the environment on which the attraction of tourism depends, especially with the exponential growth in marinas and the damage they can cause to marine biology.

It is not only the Greek islands that are experiencing saturation. A special report on Athens by Kathimerini newspaper last month acknowledged that Airbnb had been hugely beneficial for households struggling in the wake of the economic crisis, but has led to “entire neighbourhoods overrun with tourists dragging their luggage from one apartment building to the next”.

A Grant Thornton study showed that such rentals account for 14 per cent of all Greek tourism. Measures have been announced to bring the Airbnb industry more effectively within the tax net, but this does not solve the problem for students, since the price increase has pushed it beyond their reach.

While the government struggles to achieve a balance in this type of accommodation, Kathimerini wryly points out that “until all this becomes law, there is widespread mistrust, because tourism is regarded as the golden goose of the Greek economy, and you don’t mess with the golden goose”. In Athens, as in many other smaller cities, and particularly on the favourite islands for tourists, the fabric of social life and the quality of that life for its residents has been imperilled by worship at this shrine of the golden goose.

The anguish local residents feel at the way their areas are becoming magnets for tourists is palpable. When I recently wrote about the situation in Corfu, where I live, people spoke to me in the street to thank me for voicing their fears and anxieties. One owner of a traditional craftshop (the type which is being squeezed out by exorbitant rents and replaced with trendy coffee bars) said: “We have no way of saying these things. Not even at the ballot box, because we cannot trust the politicians.”

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