Do traditional guest houses offer pleasure for nature lovers or tourism for the few?
By Yannis Samatas
Ecotourism means travelling to areas of natural beauty that preserve environment and ameliorate the life of the locals. Moreover, ecotourism can be defined as any tourist activity that causes the least possible damage to the environment.
Based on this philosophy and with the aid of sponsorships and government subsidies in the last few years, we have witnessed the creation of numerous ecotourism guest houses in Crete and the rest of Greece; these are basically constructed following the local architecture, using local materials only, such as wood and stone. These guest houses are small accommodation facilities that employ local residents and serve meals made with local products.
Based on the above, the ecotourism guest houses, frequently referred to as traditional guest houses or traditional hotels, respect the aesthetics of the region, retain the local architectural style and give jobs to local people, both directly (as employees) or indirectly (buying products from them).
Everything sounds great so far, but there is a dark side in all this: the consequences to the pocket of the environmentally sensitive travelers, which is basically emptied in this case faster than in the regular guest houses and hotels, the ones labeled as “bad” or “environmentally indifferent”, the ones built with concrete, in modern lines, that serve jam made whoever knows where, plastic cheese and Danish butter.
I do not know how much more expensive can a building be when built with natural materials, rather than modern ones. I also do not know what the cost of traditional furniture compared to industrial one is. I assume that the cost is higher; therefore some difference in price between the traditional and conventional guest houses could be justified. But what is the real difference? And moreover, is eco-tourism about buildings or people – tourists and their behavior during their vacation time?
In Crete it is still easy to find a simple but clean and furnished room with kitchenette, refrigerator and A/C at 30 € per night, even in July. But I will find nowhere an ecotourism or traditional guest house for less than 60€ per night.
For a vacation time of two weeks, this practically translates to 420€ in the conventional studio, and 840€ in the traditional one. My 2 weeks in a traditional guest house will cost the same amount as spending 4 weeks in a standard hotel.
Personally, during my vacation time I am mostly interested in staying in a quiet and clean place, and in having a better view than the opposite wall.
During my vacation, I want to be out of the hotel as much as possible, exploring and discovering the place I am visiting. I am also not interested in a pool, because I want to swim in the sea feeling the salt on my skin and the smell of the seaweed.
In general I am not interested in anything provided by a luxury hotel and resort, because I know that I won’t be using them almost at all. Therefore, I will choose something cheap but descent and I will save some money to spend it in all the things that will make me happy during my holidays in Crete or elsewhere.
Ecotourism inspired by consciousness and not accommodation
Let’ s say that I don’t mind spending the above mentioned amounts since it’s good for my region and I like the aesthetics of the traditional guest house. But is it really so?
I will use the A/C in the conventional studio as in the traditional one (with minor exceptions), so, no real benefit here – especially if I am an environmentally conscious person and I don’t leave the A/C on all day long, or if I don’t set it on 15C, covering myself with 2 blankets to sleep in the cold room.
If I need warm water, I will use the water that comes from the solar water heater used by everyone in Crete and Greece, ecologists or not. No difference here either, especially if I have a shower rather than filling my bathtub, to reduce the consumption and waste of water, which is becoming a precious element in Crete of the few rainfalls.
If I eat breakfast in the traditional guest house, I will get –supposedly – served only local products. Allow me to doubt on that, because I am pretty sure I will find the same Danish butter and Dutch milk cartons for coffee as well.
On the contrary, if I stay at the conventional hotel, I won’t eat breakfast because I am a spoiled Cretan and I do not want to eat some cheese of unknown quality and origin, but I will try to find in some local store Cretan gruyere or kefalotyri. I will also try to find Cretan barley rusk, or fresh-baked whole-grain bread, olives from Crete or from Kalamata, Cretan oranges and Cretan tomatoes.
If I find all these things, my breakfast will be like home, and I will have supported the local economy; therefore my ecotourism duty is actually fulfilled.
When I go out to walk around the region, I will be careful enough not to throw garbage anywhere; I will do that because this is what my consciousness tells me, not because I am practicing eco-tourism.
When I get hungry I will try to find the small tavern where a woman and her husband will be cooking, because I know that the best food is served there and not in a fancy restaurant with a barker outside.
A great suggestion is that you should opt for places where you see more Greeks. Greeks love their food, they are used to eat tasty foods at home and know how to spot the best restaurants.
So, when it comes to food, I get an A+ for my ecotourism behavior, regardless of where I am staying.
What else is left to complete my ecotourism vacation? Connecting with the nature of course and enjoying various activities, like walking and hiking, taking pictures, riding horses, snorkeling, or simply snorkeling, or any other sea activity.
I can do all this on my own, in most cases, after collecting enough information about the place I am visiting, or after asking the locals for tips and suggestions.
If any particular facility is necessary, as with sea diving and horse riding, I will contact some local diving or horse riding centre. Few ecotourism guesthouses organize similar activities in these areas and usually collaborate with other companies in the area. Therefore, no real difference exists here either.
The SUV eco- tourism and minimum connection with nature
Recently I read on the website of an ecotourism guest house a suggestion to their clients for SUV rides, to get to know the nature and local beauties.
I am sorry but this is not eco-tourism for many reasons: the 4-wheel-drive vehicles consume too much fuel and produce too many fumes. They are noisy and disturb the animals in the areas where they move, they do not offer any substantial connection with the nature, but a fast and superficial glance through a moving box made of metal and glass, which has nothing to do with the true nature and philosophy of ecotourism.
These could be named adventure activities, jeep safaris or any way you want, but they are definitely not related to ecotourism, unless you use the car to reach a place and then go on with trekking, hiking, bird watching or any other activity you like.
Use of car has a place in ecotourism when it’s a means of transportation, simplifying the activity, not when being the entire activity itself.
Is ecotourism just a marketing trick?
So, does ecotourism offer anything in particular? Of course it does and the purpose of this article is not to underrate their importance and be unfair.
Traditional ecotourism guest houses can bring life to a place that did not have any income from tourist activities before.
They can beautify a place if they are built with respect to the environment and the local architecture.
They can help people to learn more about the natural environment of the region, if the right activities are organized.
They can support the local economy and promote the local cuisine and the customs of every place.
Unfortunately in many cases all these stumble on the exorbitant prices of the so called traditional guest houses, which are at least double compared to the prices in other hotels and accommodation outlets.
What happens in this case is that the young people with the real environmental consciousness and love for nature, but also with a tight budget, are left aside, while the huge SUVs with the middle aged men and their company flock at these places. These people are usually the kind of tourists who will stay in the traditional guest house to play cards or backgammon by the fireplace in the winter, they will eat every free-range chicke in the village and will need the whole gas station to ride around in the nature without sweating at all, since the latest technology A/C will make sure that the temperature is ideal in their cars. To cut a long story short, their ecotourism vacation will allow them to be as perfect and dust-free, as they would be if they were going to the city centre for a coffee.
Dear Owners and Managers of Traditional Guest Houses
Please, consider whether your accommodation rates policy damages the true meaning and philosophy of eco tourism or not, ruling out those who are truly interested in nature.
Consider whether you have created some sort of tourism for the few, whether you are taking advantage of a great idea for the sake of profit, and whether eco-tourism is not just about the lovely traditional buildings, but about the “green” consciousness full of love for the man and nature.