Greece has pristine beaches, blue seas, and plenty of sunshine. But this picture-perfect image could be under threat. In a country where holidaymakers contribute to 16% of GDP, the government is banking on its tourist industry to help bolster the economic recovery - specifically, relaxing rules on developing the coastline. This has caused a public backlash amid fears that precious wildlife and ecosystems could be lost forever.
The island of Elafonisos, off the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece, is famous the world over for its two long sandy beaches whose tips meet to form a long strip of golden sand which slices through the pristine emerald sea.
But now the 175,000 square metres of spectacular beach property are being advertised by the country’s privatisation fund as available for property development, drawing the ire of locals and tourists alike who fear the tiny island’s defining characteristics could be sacrificed to bring in investment.
“Our great fear is the deterioration of the environment, the disappearance of all these protected plants and the complete annihilation and disappearance of the beauty of this landscape. We're also scared that the large multinationals that will invest will bar the public from coming to the beach,” says Maria Aroni, the deputy mayor of Elafonisos. She echoes the concerns of many in Greece.
The privatisation agency was quick to react, rejecting the accusations levelled against it regarding Elafonisos. “Any future development plans will be subject to public consultation and open dialogue with local and regional authorities with a view to ensuring the public interest,” a press release read. The public remains unconvinced. Officials are sceptical of any sort of offer to dialogue when the privatisation agency apparently failed to inform officials that the beach property would be included in the state brochure.
With over 200 sorts of sensitive flora, the European Union has listed the entire island as one of the continent’s most valuable nature reserves. The advertised beaches feature large sand dunes and numerous rare plants such as sand lilies and cedars.
After a six-year recession wiped out a quarter of the country’s GDP, authorities are banking on assets like these to attract foreign investment to help jumpstart the country’s moribund economy. The country’s much-touted privatisation drive has been slow to take off, so the government has decided to put the country’s 16,000 kilometres of sun-soaked coastline on the market in a bid to attract large property developers and hoteliers.
Critics are concerned that authorities will not be able to sustain a fragile balance between the economic development of the land and the protection of the environment. Indeed, corruption and lax enforcement mechanisms have already allowed unlicensed constructions to spoil parts of the country’s beautiful landscape.
“We come to Greece because you can still find immaculate nature and clear, transparent waters. Look at this, it’s just stunning” says Tania, a tourist from Germany. “We come here because it’s still so unspoilt with little construction damaging the scenery.”
The conservative-led coalition government recently shelved a bill which eased restrictions on the country’s beaches for large hotels near the sea after many Greeks opposed the plan, fearing their country would end up following a model that has spoiled large chunks of the coastal scenery of Spain and Italy, where large hotels complexes have been built right on the beach.
But some argue that certain provisions included in an omnibus bill recently passed through Parliament could revive plans for coastal constructions. Officials responsible for public property insist their intentions are to bring in sound investment while keeping with the Greek tourism tradition and safeguarding the environment.
“Our main concern was to go for a really balanced approach,” says Avraam Gounaris, General Secretary for Public Property at the Ministry of Finance. “We would like to promote tourism, we would like to promote development in coastal zones but at the same time we're very keen on protecting the environment. Because if we weren't and if we were to take any measures that would harm the environment then we would kill the one asset we were trying to promote.”
But the country’s track record in protecting its unique ecosystem and wildlife remains lamentable. Authorities have been frequently denounced by European institutions and many environmental organisations.
The European Commission recently launched proceedings against the Mediterranean nation for, yet again, failing to protect its endangered sea turtles. Greece is the most important breeding ground in the Mediterranean region for the Caretta Caretta sea turtles, which lay their eggs in several areas of Western Greece.
On one of the pristine bays of Kyparissia in the Western Peloponnese, the second most important breeding ground in the Mediterranean region, constructions are starting to sprout up and plans to build some fifty luxury villas right on the beach pose an increasing threat to this endangered species.
“The government is desperate for money and they just want development no matter what and without saying any conditions for protecting the environment and of course protecting the endangered species, says Panagiota Theodorou, Archelon project coordinator for the Peloponese. “We all agree to development but we want development to happen in a good way and in the right way.”
The France 24 team joined teams of volunteers as they scoured beaches to monitor and help protect nesting female turtles. In the calm of summer nights, loggerhead turtles crawl out of the sea before scraping a body pit where they lay between 80 to 100 eggs and cover them with the sand.
But the artificial lights emanating from nearby bars, houses and cars discourage the turtles from nesting.
Volunteers from all over the world come to Greece and join the local teams of Archelon Turtle Protection Society, an organisation which monitors and protects the country’s sea turtles.
Using red flash lights to avoid disturbing them, the teams tag them to help keep track of numbers. They also make sure the nests are safe from predators and holidaymakers by covering them with wire while they surround the breeding ground with wooden sticks with notices informing passersby.
However, despite these efforts the turtles remain vulnerable to the threat posed by human construction, prompting the European Commission to take Greece to the continent’s Supreme Court.
“The case is referred to Court because Greece has not established a system of strict protection for the caretta caretta in the area and is tolerating various developments/activities (i.e. villas, cantinas, beach bars, sand extraction, etc.) without an adequate framework which, while offering the possibility for economic development, would also guarantee an adequate (strict) protection of the species,” Joseph Hennon, spokesperson for Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnikto told France 24 in an email.
Indeed, very few notices are posted near these important breeding beaches to inform passersby about the breeding ground and the types of behaviour that would imperil the creatures. So many visitors ignore the area’s environmental significance.
The destruction of sand dunes harms their chances of survival, as turtles usually lay their eggs close or on top of sand dunes. Also, the Caretta caretta only return to the beach they hatched to breed, so once their habitat is damaged, they will cease reproducing themselves.
Meanwhile, artificial light not only disturbs the creatures, it also seriously endangers the hatchlings. When hatchlings dig through the sand to emerge from their eggs at darkness, they instinctively follow bright lights, usually the moon and stars reflected on the waters, to make it to the sea. But artificial lighting coming from buildings and vehicles disorients the baby turtles leading them straight to a certain death. Dehydration, predators or cars end up killing them.
Environmentalists explain that usually, out of 1,000 baby turtles, only one will make it to adulthood. Human encroachment only worsens these slim chances of survival.
Indeed, as the conservative-led government wrestles to boost the local economy and attract investment, the environment does not figure among the authorities’ priorities. All this begs the following question: what will be left for the country’s future generations?