As the effects of the climate crisis become more visible and culture takes a turn towards sustainability, travelers are rejecting conspicuous consumption in favor of the pursuit of authentic experiences. A 2021 Euromonitor survey found that over 70% of international travelers were interested in sustainable tourism. But what does this term really mean? The UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization define it as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. If that is the destination Greece is aiming for, it has a long way to go.
In terms of tourism, Greece has been the victim of its own success. Santorini is overwhelmed by visitors, as carrying capacity studies prove. Mykonos’ sewers were overflowing last summer. A frenzy of building holiday houses on popular islands, partly motivated by the prospect of making them into Airbnb summer rentals, has added to the pressure.
Policies have made the problem worse. The state could demand that big investments in tourism give something back by building the public infrastructure on which they depend. Instead, it throws money at them and gives them free rein. So-called “strategic investments” get tax breaks, cash injections, and more lenient rules on planning and environmental preservation, effectively freeing them from any obligation towards sustainability. On islands like Ios, they have irrevocably altered the environment.
The lofty goals of the WTO are laudable, but the challenge in Greece is altogether more basic. We need to preserve the features that have made Greece one of the world’s top tourist destinations and safeguard the longevity and quality of the tourist experience. Greece needs to look more like Tuscany, and less like the Costa Brava of the 1980s.
So, what can we do? First, rethink policies on building and planning, environmental regulation and inspection, and strategic investments. Instead of subsidizing ersatz tourist villages, we could revitalize more traditional ones by renovating derelict buildings. We need an Independent Environmental Protection Agency in Greece that can implement spatial tourism development plans and develop targeted rules – rather than red tape – to preserve the country’s advantage without sacrificing its inhabitants’ quality of life.
Tourist policy can make a difference too. SETE has taken a laudable step in the right direction by putting forth a bold plan, Tourism 2030, that has sustainability and destination management at its core. The Government passed a law on the creation of Destination Management and Marketing Organizations (DMMOs), and the Tourism Minister has reiterated his commitment to supporting sustainability. But, in order to turn intentions into action – especially in a country like Greece – we need to focus on implementation, which is what has slowed progress in areas such as shipwreck dive tourism or environmental tourism.
We also need to engage with local communities and entrepreneurs to help them adjust. We need to create simple-to-replicate templates that the newly established DMMOs can use to enhance sustainability. A pilot project (in Kea), focused on action, will hopefully soon yield concrete suggestions. To move from buzzwords to action, we need to find creative ways to bridge local and central government, communities and tourist entrepreneurs. Given the scale of challenge and the size of the opportunity, there is no time to waste.
Sir Donald Gordon Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Professor of Strategy at the London Business School
Michael G. Jacobides