Is overtourism cutting the branch it sits on?

Is overtourism cutting the branch it sits on?

I was not going to come back to the subject. At least before the end of the summer season. I was not going to talk about this controversial subject about the pros and cons of tourism; especially for us whose countries -Turkey and Greece- where the governments have put the growth in the number of tourists as a key target for their economic performance.

I changed my mind when I noticed a news item coming from a Greek island, known for being the island of writers, poets and musicians in the past and for the reputation of its people for loving their island so much that, unlike other islands, did not like to emigrate. This island is Zante or Zakynthos.

Greece is very proud of its clean seas and beaches. In fact, this is one of its major advantage over other countries in the region like Italy or Turkey. Even its capital, Athens, offers clean and attractive beaches which Athenians can reach easily after work for a cooling dip.

For the foreign visitors, though, the central attraction is the Greek islands. This plethora of big and small pieces of land scattered in the Aegean, in the Mediterranean and the Ionian Sea, offer the best combination of stunning geography and a clean environment.

Greece is counting a lot on the revenue from tourism and remains among the top twenty most popular destination in the world. So is Turkey. More than twenty million tourists are expected to visit Greece this year. Double numbers are expected in Turkey.

I am sure many have come across one of the most iconic pictures of an idyllic holiday. You may have seen it hanging on the wall in travel agent’s offices or the bedroom of a nostalgic traveller. It is the picture of the “Navagio beach”: it shows a shipwreck rusting alone in the middle of a beautiful sandy beach next to a turquoise sparkling clean sea surrounded by high cliffs. That picture made Zante famous all over the world and brought crowds of mainly Western Europeans to this big island halfway between Italy and Greece. But since the time that picture was taken, in 1980, an ever-increasing number of visitors kept filling the island during the summer months and claiming an even larger portion of the island’s social life. Now, Zante has become one of the “wildest” Greek islands, a favourite for European tourists especially young Brits who often create havoc with their unruly, intoxicated behaviour.

So, last week’s news was ironical and revengeful. The Greek Society for the Protection of Nature (HSPN), one of the oldest NGOs in Greece, removed the “blue flags” from all 18 beaches of Zante, after reports of sea pollution caused by fluid waste and sewage. Among the Navagio Beach and the Bay of Laganas, the most crowded nestling ground in the world for Caretta-Caretta turtles.

I live in Istanbul, a city of 20 million population which is surrounded by sea. I spend time in the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara. In the whole sea area of Istanbul, there is not a single Blue Flag, on the eco-map, while only five are annotated to Tekirdağ and 12 in Çanakkale. Still, local people are flooding the beaches around the city and the islands, and some swim, while the 10 million tourists expected to visit Istanbul this year would instead stroll the City than dip into its polluted sea. The problem of exploding urbanisation, over construction, inadequate infrastructure to deal with liquid waste and general waste and pollution is an insurmountable problem. Nevertheless, the government is pleased with the increasing number of foreigners who come to the City.

We all know that the increase in tourism is a priority for all countries who have something extra to satisfy the natural human need to travel, discover and enjoy.

In its latest report, World Travel & Tourism Council (TTC) projects that the direct contribution of tourism and travel to the growth of the GDP for Turkey and Greece during 2018 will be 5.1 and 5.2 respectively and to the employment of 3.2% and 5.2%. But, at the same time, it warns that some destinations “are in danger of being loved to death”. Lack of planning, lack of suitable infrastructure while aiming at ever higher numbers of visitors, can only damage nature and threaten culture and heritage.

These days, voices are increasingly raised to warn against going over the “carrying capacity” of visitors to a tourist destination for the sake of increased revenue. UNWTO (World Tourist Organisation) warns that “this may cause the destruction of the physical, economic, and sociocultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction”.