Greek shores threatened by concrete
Mounting pressure for mass construction of holiday homes in tourist resorts
* By Yannis Elafros – KATHIMERINI newspaper
Mass organised holiday homes: a new hope for the country’s tourism and economy, or threat of irreversible damage to the environment, in the name of anarchic single-use development (again)? Debate is intensifying before the Special Land Use Framework for Tourism, while anxiety mounts in view of the review of Article 24 on the protection of forest areas. Will Greece become the “Florida of the Mediterranean” or a “Second Spain”? And is this in our best interests?
Organised holiday homes have nothing to do with residents’ normal second or holiday homes. They entail huge investments in holiday real estate. In recent years, so-called complex tourism investments, including hotels and houses for sale, have been heavily promoted. Investors can quickly recoup a large part of their money. The new phase of this model is being promoted as a basic tool for the development of tourism in Greece.
However, there are also differences of opinion regarding the necessity of such homes for sale, the percentage of the total investment they make up, and environmental and land use regulations. This is one reason for the delayed publication of the Special Land Use Framework for Tourism by the Ministry of the Environment, Planning and Public Works. The researchers drawing up the Land Use Framework intend the holiday home to take up about one third of the built area, with the rest allocated to hotel-tourism use. As an upper limit, this percentage is far below the expectations of major real estate companies and contractors, who are demanding 70-90% (!), with guaranteed tourist investment subsidies and perks.
Major investments in Greece
It is worth noting that the major investments now being promoted in Messenia and East Crete (Pylos and Moni Toplou respectively) are within current specifications, with 20-35% of the area comprising homes for sale. At the same time, demand for holiday homes in the Mediterranean is ridiculously overstated, with one million being touted as the number of northern Europeans who could buy a house in Greece! This is a huge number, leading to fears that the country’s coastline could be completely built up. Built-up areas in Greece have already risen by 11.5% in the last decade. The European Environment Agency is talking about the concrete “Wall of the Mediterranean” in areas where over 50% of the available land has been built up.
Crete, in particular, is suffering. Architect Vana Sfakianaki mentions the example of Vamos Municipality in Apokoronas, Chania. “In the villages, traditional character has almost completely disappeared. Unplanned construction is up to 40% of the total, with the result that the village cemeteries are now in the centre of the holiday home resorts.”
If holiday real estate is taken to its logical conclusion, there are fears that environmental stresses will increase. “These areas are mostly planned in virgin territories, where land prices are low and there is no disturbance from degraded areas immediately next door”, notes the Pancretan Network of Environmental Organisations ECOCRETE, underlining the threat to NATURA-listed and forested areas. Some of the last remaining protected natural ecosystems in Greece are threatened by construction, particularly, says Mrs Sfakianaki, “if the review of Article 24 goes ahead.” The holiday home will become the carrier of “building fever” contagion, which will drain valuable natural resources such as water.
The areas targeted by these companies are often on public land (part of which is currently classed as forest) or comprise large areas of church property, while investors also intend to buy uninhabited and rocky islands or exploit them on long-term contracts! If a remote settlement is intended, we must also take into account the economic and environmental cost of infrastructure networks (electricity, telephone, water, waste, rubbish collection, etc.) which are paid for by the State.
The fact that homes for sale are to form the majority of the mixed tourism investment is particularly worrying.
“Selling our land, especially in areas of natural beauty, is a short-sighted approach, as we can only exploit the wealth of a country once and then that’s it”, said economist and land use planner Kritonas Arsenis, head of the programme for Sustainable Development in the Aegean of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage.
“We are agents of our own destruction”
“The only commodity that cannot be restored is the natural environment. Will we make the whole of Greece like Kipseli?” asks Mr Yannis Patellis, a researcher into tourist development issues and former head of the Hellenic Tourism Organisation. “Without zoning, without land planning, we are agents of our own destruction. The Cypriots, for instance, undertook a huge study before embarking on holiday homes programmes. There are areas where such large investments should not go ahead, either because they are already built up, or because they are almost virgin territory.”
Mrs Vivi Patsou, a long-term member of the Land Use Committee of the Technical Chamber of Greece, notes: “Holiday homes should not be considered part of tourism use. New hotels units must be incorporated into the General Zoning Plans, which will provide a permanent planning solution.”
At the same time, it is doubtful whether expanded holiday homes boost tourist development. In fact they compete with it in many ways, as the Spanish experience has shown that homeowners only stay there 14-17 days on average and spend just 60-70% of what a tourist would. Widespread building in tourist resorts, following modern Greek “traditions”, will also downgrade them.
Holiday homes in Spain
Spanish tourism development is often used as an example, but in fact it is one to be avoided. The mass holiday home model adopted a few years ago has led to an impasse. Already 34% of the Spanish coastline to a depth of one kilometre inland has been taken over by buildings.
According to a very interesting study carried out by two volunteers of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, Juan Baron and Dimitris Bourikos, the built-up surface of Spain rose by 30% between 1987 and 2000. Today Spain has 18 newly-built houses per 1,000 citizens, whereas the European average is 5.7.
As a result of extreme building development, beaches are crowded and water is scarce. Recently a European Parliamentary Commission recommended that the regions of Valencia, Castellone and Alicante stop all construction activity due to lack of water resources.
The negative effects are already hitting Spanish tourism, especially in the worst-affected areas, while property purchase in the country is getting a bad reputation. “The OECD is already recommending a reduction in construction activity in order to avoid negative consequences,” says Mr Arsenis. “Now the Spanish are tearing their hair out,” stressed Mr Patellis.
It is worth noting that the Minister for Tourist Development, Mrs Fani Palli-Petralia, stated at a conference on real estate last month that the government is studying the Cypriot and Maltese models rather than the Spanish one, where uncontrolled building has led to destruction of the environment.