New Internationalist

Greece’s big beach sell-out

beach.jpg [Related Image]
One of Greece’s, as yet, unspoiled beaches. Eric Hossinger under a Creative Commons Licence

In an otherwise bleak economic landscape, tourism is still doing well in Greece. Millions of people are flocking to the country to enjoy its attractions: archaeological sites where much of Western culture began, legendary nightlife, beautiful mountain trails – but most of all, the beaches, bays and coves of the 11th longest coastline in the world.   

Clearly such a valuable resource needs protection. Most Greeks agree that current legislation is not fully up to the task of dealing with problems like illegal construction and litter, and offers only partial protection to sensitive coastal ecosystems and endangered marine species.    

So what is the Greek government doing about it?  

It plans to sell the country’s beaches. And to make the sale more attractive, it is dismantling protective legislation.

It all goes back to a 2012 report by US consultancy McKinsey outlining an economic strategy for Greece for the next decade. McKinsey concluded that the country needed to aim for a ‘high-end’ tourism market, in pursuit of which the country should build 20 ‘large integrated resorts’ and 50,000 new holiday homes. Never mind that Mediterranean Spain, following a similar strategy, is already blighted with thousands of holiday homes it cannot sell. More construction, not less, was the answer. The problem was that Greek laws on shoreline construction and public access restricted business activities.  

So in April 2013 a new shoreline bill was submitted to public consultation. Its stated aim was to ‘release the potential for economic development that coastal areas offer’. If enacted, the bill would dismantle, rather than bolster, a legal regime that – for all its faults – has helped keep Greece largely free of the overdevelopment which burdens the littoral environment in other countries. 

The bill would also end the long tradition of keeping the coastline a commons open to all. In a country where no-one lives more than 60 miles away from the sea, this is a devastating blow.  

For tourists, too, Greece’s lack of monstrous holiday complexes and possibilities of unfettered exploration have long been part of the attraction. These may soon be a thing of the past. 

The proposed bill grants ‘strategic investors’ the right to appropriate, build on and even modify the coastline, right into the sea itself, permanently altering the landscape. 

It ‘tolerates’ structures built in breach of current legislation, so long as they serve ‘business interests’ – the same interests that also get to decide whether to allow public access to ‘their’ coast. Of course public access is a constitutional right, but that shouldn’t be a problem. If the price is right, the Constitution can change, too.

The shoreline bill also removes restrictions, already diluted in recent years on how much of a beach may be occupied by seasonal establishments (such as beach bars and lounge chairs). This would allow businesses to impede public access to increase their profits. As for archaeological sites and protected ecosystems, these hardly get a mention in the bill.

Moreover, a new law on land-use planning considerably worsens the possible effect of the coastline bill by removing exclusive oversight for planning from the State. Therefore, private interests could determine what constitutes a ‘strategic investment’. The scope for abuse is breathtaking.

This flurry of legislation goes hand in hand with the list of beachfront ‘properties’ now being sold by Greek company Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund (known by the Greek acronym TAIPED). Already – the list keeps growing – these include several of the country’s most famous beaches. In some cases, EU protected areas (Natura-2000) are suggested as suitable for ‘mild development’ which turns out to mean  hotels and vacation homes. 

Criticism of the bill has come from all quarters, including national and local associations of engineers and architects, the administrative judges’ association, the Greek Ombudsman, local authorities, opposition parties and MPs from across the political spectrum. Practically every environmental association in the country has signed a joint statement against the bill, while over 150,000 citizens have signed the main petition addressed to the Ministers of Finance and Tourism. Membership of the Facebook page ‘Stop the destruction of the Greek coastline’ is now higher than that of any Greek political party.

The breadth and strength of protests caught the government by surprise. At the end of the public consultation period on May 13, it promised to freeze and review the bill before bringing it to Parliament again. But reports suggest that the more damaging parts of the bill will be left intact. Worse, the government closed the General Assembly of Parliament before its term expired – this is illegal. The closure means that the shoreline bill can be brought to a vote by a restricted group of MPs in the ‘summer session’, thus avoiding a revolt within the governing coalition. This is how the land-use planning bill was passed.

Ordinary Greeks are now reaching out internationally for support in defeating the shoreline bill. What is at stake is people’s right to freely access their environment. But also at stake is the intrinsic value of this environment. Selling it off for dubious short-term gain is simply destructive folly. 

But the interests promoting this bill are powerful. In some areas, the destruction of the coastline has already started. This might be the last summer that the unique Greek coastline can be freely enjoyed by all – unless we stop this bill.

What you can do to help:
Help us make a crowdfunded video for the campaign
Add your name to the petition 
Join the social media campaign
Read campaign blog posts (in English)  

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