Its stunning beaches, spectacular mountains, and Mediterranean climate make Crete the most popular destination in Greece. Almost one-fourth of the 12 million tourists to visit Greece each year head for the 150-mile-long island.
But its beauty is also its curse. Tourists are loving Crete to death.
Researchers from the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas estimate Crete’s tourism business has grown by about 50 percent over the past decade, and the island is choking from the invasion.
Tour operators have taken over once-quaint coastal villages. Soft, sandy beaches and secluded coves where travelers once could enjoy a warm, solitary communion with nature now are forested with beach umbrellas and litter.
Motorbikes, their high-octane squeal frightening away migratory birds, are rutting and scarring the island wetlands, changing the sensitive ecosystem. Even the island’s rich Minoan heritage is under threat, as archaeological sites go unprotected. Guidebooks now warn, “If you haven’t visited Crete in the past few years, brace yourself for a shock.”
“There has been rampant development with no planning,” says Michael Romanos, a professor of planning at the University of Cincinnati.
“The things people are coming to see are disappearing,” says Romano’s co-worker, Professor Brenda Scheer.
Romanos and Scheer are part of a team organized to save Crete from itself.
Help From a University
At the invitation of local governments, the University of Cincinnati’s School of Planning put together a group of volunteers — 12 professors and 12 students — called the Sustainable Development Group. They are helping Crete overcome its growth problems before it’s too late.
The group (which has done similar work in developing regions of Thailand and Indonesia) is comprised of economists, planners, geographers, biologists, architects, sociologists, political and communications experts and designers. They have spent two years studying tourism, the environment and development on Crete.
“The problems really all came in the last decade,” says Scheer. “The huge hotel development, the overcrowded beaches, the incredible amount of traffic. These problems threaten not only the environment but the tourist industry as well. ”
The Case of Hersonnissos
The coastal town of Hersonissos, near the capital Irakleio and the celebrated ancient ruins at Knossos, has a local population of 5,000, but with the build-up of beach hotels it has 55,000 hotel beds.
As tourists pour in, traffic puts the town center in gridlock.
Many of the hotels lack any kind of “Greek” character. Concrete blocks have replaced traditional blue-shuttered, bougainvillea-laden, white stucco structures.
Stepping out in the morning and looking around you could be anywhere, says 20-year-old UC student John Lateulere. “It’s placeless, there’s no sense of Greekness.”
Hotels have also usurped area beaches, putting up walls to mark off territory, despite the fact that all beaches in Greece are legally open to the public.
Locals say some beaches have more people than pebbles. Lack of upkeep, improper sewage systems and garbage left by tourists are rapidly degrading and destroying the coasts.
“I was surprised to see the beaches so trashy, it’s like what you’d find in South Florida,” says 20-year-old UC student Pamela McMillan.
Sun, Sex and Sand
The Cincinnati group, which launched its work in Hersonissos, is calling for immediate changes to current building codes, traffic patterns, waste disposal and beach management.
Changing the type of tourists the town attracts is another goal.
“The current breed of tourists coming to Hersonissos is after sun, sex and sand; they don’t care about the culture,” says Lateulere. “Crete needs to attract tourists who will respect the physical area.”
To find those types of tourists the Cincinnati group has suggested designating a Heritage Corridor through the island to protect its natural resources.
Sustaining the purity of the island’s traditional villages, beaches, wetlands, and archeological remains, the team says, will help Crete attract more empty-nesting eco-tourists rather than uzo-guzzling beach-brawlers.
The volunteers and their ideas have received a tremendous reception from the community.
“We knew this was a great opportunity for us,” says Hersonissos Mayor Zacharias Doxastakis. “Even old folks in the villages stop and ask me, ‘When are the Americanos coming?’”
The town of Hersonissos has already jumped to implement some of the UC group’s proposals. A new sewage treatment plant has just been completed. A pedestrian parkway is in the planning as well as the Heritage Corridor. Efforts to cultivate small businesses that are less dependent on tourism are also in the works.
Changing demographics have also being taken into account. In the nearby village of Avdou, an aging population has made its local school obsolete. Unused and abandoned, buildings are now graffiti-scarred relics, albeit located in picturesque surroundings.
The UC team has recommended developing the property into an artists’ and writers’ colony, and surrounding structures into bed and breakfast housing. The community has responded positively, and the neighboring town of Gonies is eager to develop affiliated facilities.
Tourism is one of the mainstays of Crete’s economy. Researchers estimate more than 30 percent of the island’s employment is directly or indirectly related to tourism services. The challenge, the UC group says, is to find a way to save Crete’s culture and environment while sustaining its economic growth.
“Growth can’t be the only objective, because without environmental and social balance there will be no long-term gains,” says Romanos.
The plan put forth will take time and money. But simply having a plan makes Hersonissos eligible for funding from the European Union’s development and conservation funds.
“We are giving them a list of guidelines for development and they are using the guidelines to choose where to put their money, to help identify their priorities,” says Romanos.
The Cincinnati volunteers hope their work will help Crete regain and retain the beauty the world loves. “I think this project will really help preserve the things people come to Crete to see,” says Scheer.