Unlikely alliance against Corfu luxury resort

Athens (AFP) –


An unlikely alliance of wealthy landowners, environment activists and residents has emerged on the Greek island of Corfu, where a disputed resort officially launched in July after a near-decade delay.

The 120-million-euro ($139-million) Kassiopi Project is situated in pine-forested Erimitis, one of the island's most pristine areas that lies a short distance from the Albanian coast.

New York-based investment fund NCH Capital, which secured the property in 2016, plans to build a 90-room five-star hotel, luxury residences and a marina.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has already drawn fire over his conservative government's encouragement of projects in environmentally sensitive areas.

These include hydrocarbon exploration near marine wildlife habitats in the Ionian Sea, and the promotion of wind farms on Greek islands over local objections.

But the opposition usually consists of citizens' groups and environmental organisations with little financial clout.

- 'A total disaster' -

As Mitsotakis visited Corfu on July 11 to officially launch the Kassiopi Project, he drew a broadside from one of the area's wealthiest property owners -- British financier Nathaniel Rothschild, a member of the prominent banking family.

In a pair of tweets, Rothschild branded the project "a total disaster" that takes Corfu back to "1970s style mass development" and "adds zero to the local economy."

Rothschild, whose interests have included coal mining, said that the pristine Erimitis coastline faces "destruction" and added: "Mitsotakis is foolish to champion this project."

British financier Ben Goldsmith, brother of Tory peer Zac Goldsmith, is another prominent critic.

Home to secluded villas and estates of other wealthy families such as the Agnellis, and visited by moguls and power-brokers, the northeastern part of Corfu has been nicknamed Kensington-on-Sea by British media.

A group of around 200 mainly British property owners on Corfu have also called on Mitsotakis to downsize the resort plan.

"Developing a hotel, along the lines proposed, on the sight of this pristine and historic ecosystem, with the consequential damage to wildlife, to the sea, and to the natural forest would be an affront to all who care about the environment," the Corfu owners association wrote in a letter to Mitsotakis last year.

They warned him of possible "widespread dismay amongst foreign friends of Greece around the world" over the project which will "destroy value for its neighbours."

Other critics say the asking price of 23 million euros for a 99-year lease was too low for a virgin forest with a stunning sea view.

The Kassiopi tender was originally floated by Greece's privatisation agency in 2012. It had to be vetted by the country's archaeological and forestry departments and overcame around a dozen court complaints.

Greece's top administrative court -- which also rules on environmental cases, the Council of State -- has approved the project.

Work began in June to demolish an old navy observation post located in the area.

- 'Good for Corfu' -

Mitsotakis during his visit insisted the project was "good for Corfu and the country."

He said Greece "needs" high-profile tourism that "upgrades" local areas and "respects" the environment.

The government says the project will create 1,000 jobs during construction and 500 in operation.

It added only seven percent of the 49-hectare site will be built on with bioclimatic architecture, fire protection and desalination systems for irrigation.

Green areas and a local beach are to remain public, says NCH Capital, which is active in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans, Russia and Brazil.

Mitsotakis has argued that structured development of natural areas under strict rules is preferable to "doing nothing".

"In many cases, land that lies unutilised does not create incentives to protect the environment," the PM said.

The local municipal authority strongly opposes the project, with the mayor of North Corfu taking part in a protest during the PM's visit.

The Corfu regional governor is in favour, arguing that Greece needs to build "investor confidence."