In Greece, locals push back as wave of construction alters their islands

Athens: With a deluge of foreign visitors fuelling seemingly non-stop development on the once pristine Greek islands, local residents and officials are beginning to fight back, moving to curb a wave of construction that has started to cause water shortages and is altering cultural identity.

Tourism is crucial in Greece, accounting for one-fifth of the country’s economic output, and communities on many islands depend on it.

But critics say the development has spiralled out of control in some areas, particularly on islands such as Mykonos and Paros, where large-scale hotel complexes have mushroomed in recent years.

Teachers and other professionals in those and other Cycladic islands, a popular cluster in the Aegean Sea, have struggled to find affordable housing amid an influx of visitors and home buyers, fuelling growing protests by locals over the repercussions of rampant tourism.

The islands, at the forefront of Greece’s tourism boom, are facing increasingly urgent calls to preserve their natural and cultural heritage.

The number of foreign arrivals to Greece broke another record in 2023, with 30.9 million in the first 10 months of the year, according to the Bank of Greece. It is an increase of 17 per cent over the previous year, surpassing pre-pandemic tourism levels.

To meet demand, 461 new hotels opened on Greece’s southern Aegean islands from 2020 to 2023, according to data from the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels compiled by the Athens-based Research Institute for Tourism.

Of those, 126 were opened in 2023, according to the institute.

The proliferation of swimming pools has put a serious strain on water supply on Cycladic islands such as Sifnos and Tinos, and the aggressive expansion of seaside bars over pristine beaches on many islands has generated backlash from locals.

Conservationists and architects are also leading a push to preserve the character of the Cyclades, which they say is at risk of being obliterated amid a real estate-driven homogenisation of vacation destinations.

The Athens-based Museum of Cycladic Art, which showcases the unique marble figurines that were produced on those islands in antiquity and influenced the course of Western art, is working with local authorities and associations to the same end.

Greece’s tourism minister Olga Kefalogianni pledged recently that untrammelled growth would no longer go unchecked.

“We have a clear vision and goal for the sustainability of destinations and of our tourism product,” she said in December at a conference in Athens.

She added that there will be a greater emphasis on protecting the natural environment and cultural identity of individual destinations, with legislation being drafted to support that effort.

Those pressing for change are not convinced.

Mr Ioannis Spilanis, head of the Aegean Sustainable Tourism Observatory and a former general secretary for island policy at Greece’s shipping ministry, said: “It’s very easy to talk about sustainable development, but all they actually do is approve new investments.”

A native of Serifos, Mr Spilanis was one of several experts who addressed a November conference on Mykonos about how tourism has radically changed the Cyclades.

The event was organised by local authorities who appealed to a top Greek court over a project for a five-star hotel complex and a marina for superyachts. The court allowed the development, but curtailed the marina’s size.

Mr Nikos Chrysogelos, a former member of the European Parliament with the Ecologist Greens party, who has launched a Cyclades-wide sustainability initiative, said developers were overlooking the singular features of the Cyclades and treating them like city suburbs.

“You used to see farm buildings, dry stone walls. There was a harmony to the landscape,” said the Sifnos native. “Now, you see roads, hotel complexes, high walls. It could be Dubai or Athens.”

Mr Nikos Belios, a secondary school principal and the head of the local farmers’ and beekeepers’ cooperative, said Sifnos had experienced an influx of investors “from all over the planet, building colossal structures, like fortresses, with huge walls” to cater to wealthy tourists.

“They arrive, they load up their Cayennes, Jeeps or Hummers, and they lock themselves away,” he said of the tourists. “They have no interest in Sifnos – it’s a dot on the map for them.”

In 2023, Ms Maria Nadali, mayor of Sifnos, urged the Greek government to put the brakes on tourist development. This included banning the construction of further private swimming pools and “cave houses” built into mountain slopes, a trend that she said was altering the island’s morphology and unique architectural physiognomy.

The Museum of Cycladic Art has also become involved, trying to help islanders protect the islands’ natural environment and heritage.

It is holding programmes on eight islands, with topics including preserving the ancient marble quarries of Paros – the source of many Cycladic antiquities – and documenting and promoting traditional water management practices on Andros.

“We’re trying to help them protect their heritage,” said the museum’s chief executive and president Kassandra Marinopoulou, citing key threats such as increased tourism, the abandonment of local traditions and the effects of climate change.

The initiative also aims to support cultural tourism on the islands, with digital walking tours and the promotion of local gastronomy, said Ms Marinopoulou, whose family is from Andros.

“We don’t want the Cycladic food to disappear because the younger generations sell the family taverna and it becomes a sushi bar,” she said.

“What visitors want is authenticity. They don’t want to see something they’ve seen in Ibiza – that’s not authentic.”

Amid the glut of five-star hotels, some businesses are seeking to promote “slow travel” as an alternative model that supports local communities rather than sidelining them.

One of those, travel start-up Boundless Life, exposes foreign visitors to local culture with pottery workshops, textile factory visits and Greek lessons.

“When choosing new Boundless locations, we’re very keen on identifying cultural gems and protecting them,” said Ms Elodie Ferchaud, a founder of the start-up, which has brought scores of foreign families to Syros for three-month stays.

But many natives of the Cycladic islands say that a full overhaul of Greece’s tourism model is needed.

“We need to find a way to survive,” Mr Spilanis said. “Destroying the very assets you’re sitting on is not the way.”