Closer to North Africa than to Athens, Crete is a world unto itself. Landscape and history have collaborated to make it one of the most evocative and multi-faceted of the Greek islands, with a rich tapestry of canyons, mountains, and of course, blissful beaches lapped by crystal-clear water that bring a gurgle of joy to sun-starved tourists on vacation. Thanks to its strategic importance, Crete is littered with the remains of occupying civilisations. The oldest are the Minoans, a Bronze Age people who ruled large parts of the Aegean from their capital in Knossos some 4,000 years ago. This vast site, excavated by English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the 20th century, is one of Crete’s essential tourist destinations.
After the Minoans, control passed to the Myceneans, then Dorians, Romans, and Arabs but it wasn’t until the Venetians arrived in the 13th century that Crete reached its next largest cultural and political peak. The historic quarters of coastal Chania (Hania) and Rethymnon hum with the Venetians’ legacy. The Venetians built fortresses and harbours, holy churches, a palazzi with grand portals, and many proud stone mansions fronted by iconic arches. Quite a few of the latter mentioned buildings are now atmospheric boutique hotels while others harbour romantic eateries, fine shops, and galleries. To this day, a contagious light-heartedness bubbles throughout the tangles of lanes in these two charming towns. Despite – or perhaps because of – repeated occupation by different foreigners, modern Cretans have a reputation for being fiercely proud and ruggedly independent.
Tourism fuels the economy but, thanks to flourishing agriculture and livestock rearing, it does not dominate. Age-old traditions are honed and cherished to this day, especially in the remote mountain village areas. In Anogia a village that sits at the foot of Mount Psiloritis, Crete’s tallest peak where Zeus is said to have been reared in a cave, elderly men still gather in the kafeneia (cafés) wearing black shirts with baggy pants tucked into their boots, just as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. Far from the conspicuous and frequented tourist spots along the north coast, life slows to a crawl here in these high altitudes and everyone, it seems, has time for a chat, coffee, or raki at the drop of a hat.
Crete’s corrugated south coast is just as untamed by mass tourism. Roads corkscrew through sparsely populated mountains before dead-ending in the deep blue Libyan Sea. Craggy coves cradle footprint-free beaches, many reachable only by boat or walking trails. Villages are little more than tiny clusters of whitewashed houses basking in splendid isolation, such as Loutro, wedged into a glittering crescent where days pass by gently. In Agios Pavlos, serenity and lack of development make it a favourite for escapists and yoga devotees, while more restless types are drawn to rambling through gorges, especially in the spring when temperatures are moderate and wildflowers push up from the hard-baked soil. The shy kri-kri, an endangered mountain goat that survives only on Crete, thrives in this tough terrain and can be spotted climbing up what seem to be impossible peaks on almost any day.
This beautiful island home to rich history, culture, and land has the biggest economy of any area in Greece. Much like California, Crete is considered to be the bread basket or food bowl of Greece for it produces much of the produce and natural goods used to feed the Greek people all over the country. However even with its strong agricultural capabilities Crete still heavily relies on tourism as a source of income for much of the population, an industry that has put quite a lot of strain on Crete’s second largest industry; agriculture. The island’s dependency on both these large industries has made it a perfect candidate for the recently established industry known as “sustainable tourism”.
In this age of greater environmental appreciation and the growing awareness of the negative impacts that pollution has on our planet, the tourism industry is one of the largest culprits in regards to industries that impact our environment negatively. Tourism is not an environmentally friendly industry. Transportation, over-development, and depletion of natural resources are but a few contributors brought on by tourism that greatly harm the globe. International conferences focusing on this issue globally have developed a new idea on how to resolve this growing dilemma while still maintaining the economic importance of the tourism industry, this concept being “sustainable tourism.”
Loosely defined, inter-related categories that coincide with this idea include; alternative tourism (nature and wildlife activities), ecotourism (promoting yet protecting natural areas from mass-tourism and development), and agro-tourism (educational holidays in agriculture and culture to sustain the rural population and local traditions of an area). The theory is easy to embrace because most tour operators, local businesses, and visitors alike genuinely appreciate and respect the culture and natural landscape in which they reside, however the development of this new approach to tourism has proven difficult to implement.
This concept of linking visitors with culture, nature, and the environment in a harmonious way is not a new idea, but one that is now viewed on a global scale. Long-term, successful community involvement has preserved many popular rural tourist destinations such as the wine regions of Europe and the United States. Many rural communities have acted on instinct, rather than governmental directives or support, and usually with enough individual investment do achieve results.
Foreign visitors are accustomed to, or expect, familiar settings that in no way resemble the landscape or lifestyle of their host-country. Local communities relying on tourism are faced with these issues while attempting to maintain their own cultural heritage and a clean-living environment. Over commercialization can wipe out an entire community in a few “trendy” years, leaving a wasteland of burger joints and water parks behind. Instead of clinging to these recognizable western comforts one may choose to spend their holiday exploring the countryside and quaint villages of a local area. Learning about the production of local cuisine and crafts can be a refreshing and rewarding break from city life. The informed traveler can also be directly contributing to the sustainable tourism effort by supporting the communities working to preserve their local traditions.
Crete has much to offer in sustainable tourism, from one-day visits to ancient sites or olive oil factories, traditional villages and folklore museums, to week-long nature and adventure tours, and “Green Globe” hotels operating on an ecologically-friendly basis complete with organic gardens and bird sanctuaries. Do your homework to be sure that the program you are interested in is what it purports to be. Ecotourism has been mixed into many a commercial pot around the world, doing more harm than good.
Some sustainable tourism programs are co-financed by the European Union’s “LEADER Initiative” program for the development of disadvantaged rural areas of the EU, launched in 1991. Eligible areas of LEADER are those lagging behind in development, fragile rural areas, and areas with very low population density. Due to the Greek economic crisis of 2008, Greece and its many rural and traditional regions are prime applicants for the program.
Local groups submit proposals to the national/regional authorities (the relevant Hellenic Ministries in this case) responsible for the implementation and selection of proposed LEADER projects. A lot of paperwork is involved to apply, which is daunting for small-scale rural farmers who don’t have easy access to urban business advisors. Many villagers are not even aware of the existence of these programs, which raises the question of the selective promotion of such programs to the general public by local authorities.
LEADER beneficiaries, called “local action groups” are a combination of public and private partners. It is inevitable that the number of worthy applicants exceeds the allotted funding for this initiative. There are also a few related developmental, environmental, and cultural initiatives such as Habitat II, LIFE, SAVE, THERMIE, and Natura 2000 that also work to support these small traditional villages hit hard by the adverse byproducts of tourism such as the mismanagement of shared resources, increased pollution, and over development of traditional and natural landscapes.
The Greek branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is another group that is helping to promote sustainable tourism by studying the relationship between tourism and environmentally protected areas. They conduct ecotourism pilot projects and offer training programs and guidelines to local communities. Among the many projects they oversee are two model programs in northern Greece at Prespa National Park and Dadia National Forest. Eleni Svoronou, WWF Coordinator of Ecotourism Projects, cautions that prior planning and certification systems are necessary before the promotion of ecotourism can begin. “Programs should have a definite, positive affect to both the physical and social environment,”she said, meaning that any ecotourism projects should be tested and proven to support the growth and security of the surrounding environment until advertised or initiated.
During the peak tourist season in Crete (April to August), electricity and water sources are tapped beyond their limits. Crete is suffering from increasing drought conditions while balancing agriculture with tourism as their two main sources of income. Farmers and hoteliers refer to the dilemma as the seasonal water wars. Neither side plans to budge, but hoteliers have more clout. “Why do people travel to our beautiful sea to swim in a cement pool? Why do they need golf courses in our desert? Don’t they know there will be nothing to eat for dinner?” Laments Yiorgos Spiradakis, a farmer in Lassithi, Crete. His cries of reason echo throughout the village and farming communities of Crete as well as the other Greek islands.
Management of Crete’s resources should be of paramount importance, a fact that the majority of the population, especially those of whom cultivate the land in order to earn a sustainable income, are aware of. Renewable energy sources (RES) are a sustainable key to increase the amount of readily available resources throughout Crete. These energy sources primarily include solar energy and wind energy alternatives. Crete is currently the leading region in Greece, by about 10%, in RES electrical generation. It seem like a positive breakthrough but it’s not enough energy to sustain Crete for what conservationists believe would be only a decade. Communication between the general public, government officials, and environmental specialists is vital to promote the benefits of clean energy solutions. “No one wants metal windmills on their hills and no one can afford solar water heaters. We’re just surviving day to day as it is,” said Sophia Petrakis, a shop owner in Chania, Crete. This is one of the key issues in the sustainable movement across Crete. While many people are informed and aware of the ways in which they could be living more environmentally friendly or sustainably, the move to maintaining this kind of lifestyle is costly and hard to accomplish when the financial trade offs are between buying your family an array of solar panels or putting your children through school. This is where government and environmental aid programs become crucial for the majority of the population of Crete, primarily those living in the rural mountain villages, for they have no chance of affording such systems without outside financial aid or support.
Hellas-Greenpeace is one such environmental organization that is assisting the Cretan population by studying the impact of climate change and promoting RES solutions throughout the island. Machi Siderdou, Coordinator of the Hellas-Greenpeace Climate Change Program, says that Crete has a vast RES potential which has not yet been exploited, and that, “Crete could be a model for renewable energy use.” Greece is under obligation to reduce its dependency on climate-changing fossil fuels under the Kyoto Treaty protocol. The target set by the EU is to cover 20.1% of its electricity needs through such”gentle” and sustainable forms of energy by 2010.
During a state RES conference this May, Deputy Public Works and Environment Minister, Ilias Efthymiopoulos, said that a comprehensive policy to reduce emissions contributing to the “Greenhouse Effect” has not yet been developed in Greece. He cited oppositional movements promoted and led by local communities living near and around RES units such as windmills and hydroelectric dams as the greatest obstacle in employing and implementing such technology more widely throughout Greece. In the same month that these statements were made a potentially damaging oil generation plant began construction in Eastern Crete, an area where wind energy would have been the ideal “clean” energy alternative. The reason for the area not being used as a wind power generation source was largely due to local villagers and farmers of the area not wanting their lands or homes disrupted by the constant drone of windmills. Along with pushback from locals around the construction of certain sustainable energy technologies, appropriate waste recycling measures and the promotion and usage of biodegradable products have also been left largely unutilized throughout Cretan society, even though the island would greatly benefit from their implementation. Mass tourism only exacerbates these problems.
According to Nikos Charalambides, of Greenpeace’s GMO Campaign, Crete could also be a perfect model for organic farming practices and the natural alternative to GMO engineering, due to her geographic location and diverse climate conditions. Greenpeace is collaborating with farming communities across Crete to promote organic farming alternatives, a practice which has been largely left un-implemented throughout Greece but is currently steadily on the rise.
Some major tour operators such as TUI of Germany and Thompson’s of the U.K. have designed environmentally friendly rating and auditing systems for their tour destinations. There are even a few hotel groups operating in environmentally friendly fashions across Crete which have won awards for clean beaches, maintaining their own organic gardens, and setting up innovative energy-recycling systems. However, many large hotel complexes cannot avoid the negative impact they cause on their surrounding environment due to the sheer presence of their complexes being situated within rural areas suffering from a lack and depletion of natural resources. These hotels also have no control over the unsustainable practices (refuse disposal, pesticide usage, etc.) performed by the local community or businesses in the area. Even popular noise, air, and water polluting activities, offered by many small-scale tourist entertainment businesses such as water skiing or jet skiing directly affect the livelihood of the small-scale fishermen, as well as the environmental stability of the local wildlife and ecosystems not to mention endangering the lives of cheerful swimmers.
To date, there are no specific national strategies or EU directives pertaining to the sustainable tourism industry in Greece, and no management body to oversee current or proposed programs and their implementation. There are surprisingly few major governmental or nongovernmental sustainable tourism projects specific to Crete. However, small grassroots organizations are getting stronger and more determined every year to change the tourism industry in Crete and to make the whole enterprise more sustainable. Environmental and local groups have stressed the urgency of implementing an action plan not to maintain annual visitor quotas, but to protect the island from rapid, irreparable damage. Areas that have already fallen victim to over-development risk the almost inevitable outcome of becoming heavily polluted and losing the initial attractions which brought tourists in by the hundreds of thousands in the first place, those characteristics being unique, quiet, and clean destinations overflowing with beautiful flora and fauna that made way for a perfectly harmonious ecosystem. As the increase of tourism and the overdevelopment of these locations slowly destroy these crucial and delicate ecosystems, visitors are slowly moving away and finding less developed destinations to visit. However, these travelers are quickly followed by the very same entrepreneurs, who were responsible for over developing the previously sought after destination, seeking to supply, or create, demand for potentially damaging forms of entertainment as well as housing and fine dining. This pattern has led to a vicious game of hide and seek that has left barely any corner of the globe untouched and which has led to the global depletion of natural resources as well as the over development and destruction of natural and local ecosystems and wildlife.
Conservationists are working to encourage and train local entrepreneurs to implement long-term, viable programs, and inform visitors of the importance of conservation practices, as well as advise tour operators to regulate the flow of traffic for “simply cheap, beach holidays” to pre existing and already developed sites. This way, they can try to reserve protected natural areas for people who understand their responsibilities as visitors to these natural sites and the value of protecting what we all should cherish and protect, our world.
The underlying message is that Crete’s inhabitants, whether permanent or temporary, must play an active role in preserving her rich cultural history and natural beauty, for if we don’t there soon won’t be much to preserve. A lesson and belief that we should all remember to uphold in any country we visit, and especially in our own home countries.