The Crushing Environmental Burden of Greek Tourism

Tourism is the heavy industry of Greece. It annually earns a fourth of the country’s income. The pestilence year 2020, however, was bad for Greek tourism. In 2020, some 70 percent fewer tourists visited the country. This drastic decline meant less money for debt trapped Greece. Compared to 2019, tourist receipts in 2020 dropped by 78.2 percent.

Greece was not alone in losing tourism in 2020. Tourism declined dramatically everywhere. That decline had “a profound effect around the world.”

Less international travel was beneficial to air quality and climate change. Global warming gas emissions declined by about seven percent. Experts say that kind of decline, 7.6 percent in greenhouse gas emissions, would be necessary every year for ten years to stabilize global temperature to about 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the temperature in pre-industrial age.

However, humans and nations are selfish and very unlikely to shut themselves down for another nine years for the benefit of the planet and their own survival.

Even in the pestilence year 2020, people (especially in Africa, Asia, and the Americas) took advantage of the decline in the official protection of natural parks and wildlife and, like barbarians, smuggled, trapped, trafficked, and hunted animals, including endangered species.

The natural treasures of Greece

We don’t know what happened to wildlife in Greece in 2020. But we can safely assume that the pestilence emboldened criminals to increase their wildlife depredations. Besides, the international lenders of Greece, the European Union and America’s International Monetary Fund, have practically killed Greek national sovereignty and the country is like an unfenced vineyard.

Greece, however, is blessed with biological diversity. Luc Hoffmann, founder of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature; World Wildlife Fund), was right saying:

“Greece is the country of diversity…Zeus must have hit this area with his hammer, splashing thousand islands in the sea and tearing the mainland into pieces so that the country’s coastline became as long as the one of the whole continent of Africa. This physical multiplicity is increased by a wide gradient of climates, ranging from almost subtropical to truly alpine conditions, as well as by a variety of mountains, hills, and plains, many of which scattered with wetlands. No wonder these conditions have produced an exceptionally rich living nature, in fact the highest biodiversity known in Europe.”

Hoffmann was wise. Zeus was also xenios, the god who protected foreigners visiting Hellas. That virtue the Greeks called philoxenia / hospitality.

Philoxenia was complementary to the exceptionally rich living nature in Greece, which  inspired Greek gods and thinkers.

Zeus was a sky and climate god. He sent the rains, hail, snow, lightening, and the feared thunder and thunderbolts. Demeter, sister of Zeus, gave the wheat and grains to the Greeks. To this day, Greeks call their cereals Demetriaka, gifts of Demeter. Dionysos, son of Zeus, introduced the vine and wine. Athena, daughter of Zeus, gifted the olive tree to Athens. Her sacred bird was the owl. Artemis, sister of Apollo, protected the natural world. Aristaios, son of Apollo and the nymph Kyrene, was the god of honeybees, other insects and wildlife, and shepherding, cheesemaking, and olive growing – all vital for a healthy people and alive natural world and life and civilization.

Orpheus was so good a musician and singer that he caught the attention of beasts, even trees and stones. He joined the Argonauts searching for the golden fleece, some time before the Trojan War.

Hesiod was a near contemporary of Homer. His epic poems praised the beauty of the natural world and the work of peasants in making a living out of the riches of nature. About three centuries after Hesiod, another Greek, Xenophon, described the delights and usefulness of working with nature for national defense, democracy, and a prosperous farming.

Aristotle, a near contemporary of Xenophon, invented the science of zoology, praising animals as the perfect products of nature that does nothing in vain.

This gives us some clues and sets the context for the natural world in Hellenic culture. The natural world was sacred and essential for an independent, mostly democratic, and healthy polis. Hellas was blessed with plenty of animals and plants, mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, and seas.

The International Union of Conservation of Nature estimated there are about 36,000 species of animals and plants in Greece. This represents 23 percent of animals and plants in Europe, and, possibly, more than 2 percent of the world’s animals and plants.

About 32 percent of the species threatened in Europe live in Greece. The country hosts about 42 percent of all the European mammals; 38 percent of reptiles; 27 percent of amphibians; 50 percent of the butterflies; and 58 percent of the dragonflies.

The threats to wildlife in Greece, as well as the rest of Europe, come from mining, deforestation, and, primarily, industrialized agriculture, its gulping down of fresh water, its invasion of forests, and its toxic pesticides. These toxic and climate change practices homogenize nature and leave not much safe habitat for insects, birds, and other wild animals and plants.

The tourism tsunami

The other perennial threat to the integrity and health of the natural world is tourism. Every year for a few months Greece is literally flooded by foreigners who are thirsty for ancient Greek culture, seeing and visiting the Parthenon and the exquisite and mind-expanding museums. In 2018, about 33 million tourists arrived in Greece.

In addition, tourists want clean waters to swim and play.

Beach in Argostoli, Cephalonia, Greece. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

Millions of them visit the country’s natural parks to see and enjoy rare wildlife. All of them eat good food.

But Greece is barely ten million people and the tourists sometimes are double and triple that number. The trash, and especially the plastic water bottle trash, is enormous. In the summer of 2017, I came across those plastic water bottle mountains in a secluded village of the beautiful island of Kerkyra the tourists call Corfu.

Pollution is not the only threat of tourism. Millions of tourists inundate the beaches, some of which like those of the Ionian islands of Zakynthos and Cephalonia, are the resting and breeding grounds and the birthplace of the endangered turtle Caretta caretta.

The pestilence (and debt) disruption of tourism

The 2020 pandemic reduced the tourists visiting wildlife sanctuaries in Greece to a trickle. This caused stress in the protection of wildlife. Money dried up.

Did the crimes of hunting, poaching, trapping, smuggling, and trafficking of wildlife also happened in Greece?

I already said I cannot answer this question, though I suspect that the pandemic and the country’s debt have been shredding state wildlife policies. Lax environmental and wildlife protection rules are always detrimental to both nature and people losing treasures of life that give meaning and pleasures to their own life and civilization.

Changing tourism to philoxenia and zoophilia (love for animals)

I already mentioned that Aristotle invented the science of zoology and spoke eloquently about the beauty and importance of animals.

Yet despite Aristotle and the spread and advances of biology and environmental sciences, humans are daily harming nature. Their numbers alone are simply explosive needing more than one Earth. Second, the largest institutions of the world, corporations, and often governments, treat the natural world like a mine.

Climate change  has been hitting humans with tons of bricks: droughts, heavy rains, storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, wild forest fires, and the rapid disappearance of species and pestilence. Yet humans don’t get it. The pandemic especially demonstrated that humans are backwards species often walking paths of suicide.

Even if Greece were at its ancient glory, it could not alone stop the human onslaught on Mother Earth. However, it can become a paradigm for emulation: reform its practices towards nature: convert its farming to organic agriculture and produce its electricity from the boundless Sun god Helios and wind god Aiolos, both ancient Greek gods.

Tourism is secret Philhellenism. People with some acquaintance with Western civilization know that impoverished and debt-ridden Greece is behind their knowledge, science, architecture, art and culture. They visit the country and see the proof of ancient wisdom and sophisticated science splashed all over ruined and looted Parthenon, theaters, the ruins of temples, and the treasures of the museums. Greece becomes their second home.

These secret millions of Philhellenes could become Greek ambassadors all over the world.

The Geek tourist organization can facilitate this process by simple things like changing the name of Santorini to its real Greek name of Thera and labeling paths to archaeological sites worth seeing and exploring. The museums of these sites should always have a complete or partial collection of the books of the best of the Greeks – in English translation.

The tourist organization should fill the country with statues of the best of the Hellenes: heroes like Herakles, Achilles, Odysseus, Leonidas, Themistokles, Thrasyboulos; thinkers like Homer, Hesiod, Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Herakleitos, Parmenides, Empedokles, Demokritos, Hippokrates, Aischylos, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotos, Thucydides, Sokrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristarchos of Samos, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Hipparchos, Galen, Ptolemaios and Hypatia, the first martyr of science.

Another and equally important priority in making tourism more attractive, sustainable, and Greek would be to protect the country’s natural parks. The guards of these national treasures of the natural world should know the natural history of the species and ecosystem they are protecting.

The museums of these natural parks should be selling short histories of the species inhabiting the protected area. The History of Animals by Aristotle (both the Greek text and English translation) should be in each of the Greek museums.

In short, the silver lining of the pandemic and its devastating impact on tourism is a necessary rethinking of tourism. Is tourism simply a business? Should debt-humiliated Greece facilitate the export of tourist earnings to debt-collectors or should invest this money to create a more powerful and ecological country with a more Hellenic future?

Tourism could be redesigned to spread Hellenic culture and ecological consciousness while earning a good living for Greece.

Done properly in the Greek tradition of knowledge, philoxenia, and deep respect for nature, tourism has the potential to strengthen Greece while avoiding the adverse effects of business as usual, the monster ships carrying thousands of tourists from port to port, pollution, and the degradation of the natural world and its treasures.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.