Responsible tourism in Greece

Tourism makes up almost 20 percent of Greece’s GDP (up to 80 percent of income on the islands), and some 20 percent of the labour force is involved directly or indirectly in the industry. It is heavily dependent on the tourism industry. Officials reckon that a new job is created for every 30 tourist arrivals in the country – and with its beaches, islands, walking trails and ancient archaeological sites, there’s a lot to keep people coming.

But the Greek tourist industry has had to cope with a double whammy: first, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 during which violent protests flared up in cities over unpopular austerity measures. Many small businesses sadly folded. And not long after Greek tourism finally recovered, along came Covid-19.

We have always believed that when a country’s economy is on its knees, the best way to support the people there is by booking a vacation, and making sure that your money makes its way to local businesses. Avoid all-inclusive resorts and chain restaurants. Stay local, eat local and buy local instead.

And we’re pleased to see that, while Covid kept borders closed and beaches empty, the Greek government appears to have viewed the absence of vacationmakers as an opportunity to reconsider its approach to tourism. The three pillars of sun, sea and sand that have made up the country’s tourism strategy for so long are now accompanied by a fourth: sustainability.

People & culture

Overtourism vs. sustainable tourism in Greece

The Greek tourism industry is Odysseus-like in its resilience. It contracted significantly during the financial crisis and then, just as the country began to emerge from harsh austerity measures put in place by the government, the industry was hit again by Covid-19.

In truth, however, with no fewer than 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, hundreds of islands, world-famous archaeological sites, a Mediterranean cuisine and climate, and a wealth of activities available from hiking and cycling to watersports and small ship cruising, traveling in Greece was never going to fall from favour. And so it has proved, with arrivals and flights soaring when all Covid-19 restrictions were dropped from summer 2022.

But the resurgence of its tourism industry isn’t necessarily all good news for Greece. The spectre of overtourism, which affects destinations worldwide, remains a concern in many parts of the country. Pre-pandemic, the country had seen astronomical growth, from 24 million arrivals in 2015 to over 31 million in 2019. That level of growth puts immense levels of pressure on small island communities, fragile ecosystems, walking trails and ancient sites where preservation programmes simply weren’t designed for these numbers.

The enforced hiatus of Covid-19 provided scope for Greece to rethink its approach to tourism. For many years, it has been supported by the three pillars of sun, sand and sea, but that has led to infrastructure frequently being strained and overwhelmed during peak travel months. Now, aiming to become a year-round destination, the Greek government has decided to pursue a strategy of sustainable tourism.

There is recognition that visitors are interested in slow travel, authentic cultural experiences, low food mileage and regenerative tourism, and elements of the strategy include cutting fishing areas to just 10 percent of Greek waters, and ensuring that the tourism industry respects the identities of different regions.

Other initiatives include partnering with Google to fund sustainable tourism projects around the country, such as by training hotels in best-practise energy, water and waste management, an experiment to make Paros in the Cyclades the Mediterranean’s first single use plastic-free island, and a plan to assess capacity limits and protect cultural heritage on Santorini, historically one of Greece’s most over-visited islands.

A ‘laboratory’ has opened on Rhodes to work with local people on transformational projects around protecting biodiversity and conserving resources. It’s being run in partnership with TUI Group, which may not be the most obvious name that springs to mind when considering sustainable tourism. But it’s a step in the right direction and perhaps an acknowledgement that there is a better way to travel than ‘fly and flop’.

These commitments may be innovative, but what’s really needed above all is making sure that visitor numbers are sustainable in the most popular destinations. Encouraging people to visit lesser-known Greek islands and mainland destinations, as well as expanding the tourist season, will help to spread the income from tourism, while also reducing demand on overstretched resources.

How to travel responsibly in Greece
Travel outside the peak summer months of July and August, which can be ridiculously hot and crowded anyway. May, September and October are glorious in Greece, promising warm, sunny weather and warm seas.

When researching where to go, look further afield than ever-popular islands such as Santorini, Crete and Corfu. (Reading our guide to off-the-beaten-track Greek Islands is a good place to start.) You may need to take a slightly longer ferry journey, but the rewards are worth it: far fewer people around, pristine natural settings, and the sense of fresh discovery.

Islands such as Ithaca, Naxos, Kythnos and Paros are well set-up for tourism but on a smaller scale, and there are many areas of mainland Greece, including the Meteora region, that are much less-crowded.

Europeís migrant & refugee crisis

In 2021, six young Afghan asylum seekers were imprisoned for burning down Europe’s largest migrant camp outside the village of Moria on Lesbos – a crime they deny. Close to the west coast of Turkey, Lesbos is a frequent staging-point for people making dangerous journeys from Asia and the Middle East in search of asylum and a new life in Europe. For years, however, many found themselves trapped at Moria or other camps in a state of limbo, their asylum applications endlessly delayed while overcrowding and conditions worsened.

The fire brought matters to a head. The Moria camp had long been a source of simmering tension with local residents, who initially offered a sympathetic welcome to migrants but began to feel that they had been abandoned by the rest of Europe and left to cope by themselves. Unable to seek employment, migrants were accused of stealing livestock and cutting down olive trees for firewood. Threats and protests grew, and when Turkey opened its European border, resulting in a massive influx of Syrian asylum seekers, a new center right government in Greece began enacting a much harsher response.

Boats carrying migrants are now physically pushed away from Greece’s borders (a practise which is both illegal and dangerous). New policies, meanwhile, make it harder for those who do make it to land to access services and resources, and easier for them to be deported. New asylum processing facilities are replacing the squalid, unsanitary Moria camp on Lesbos as well as Kos, Leros, Chios and Samos. They have restaurants, sports pitches and playgrounds for children. But with their military-grade fences, cameras and remote locations, they resemble high-tech prisons, and people arriving in them can still anticipate being stuck for years while their asylum claims work their way through the system.

Lesbos, like many Greek islands, has an economy largely dependent on tourism, and it has been significantly affected by negative headlines around migration. Arrivals halved in 2016 following the Syrian refugee crisis and the largest movement of migrants into Europe since World War II, and they have not recovered.

Visible signs of the refugee crisis can be distressing to some tourists. But there’s a danger that hiding migrants from view in isolated camps detracts from the scale of the problem, and the appalling situation these people are in, and the urgency we should all feel to resolve it. Out of sight, out of mind, and vulnerable to inhumane government policies.

Another issue is volunteer tourism. There are around 50,000 refugees in Greece, most of whom will stay there for a prolonged period. An evolutionary system of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some registered, others not, has formed around them, and there is a constant churn of volunteers in the country. While it’s hard to fault their intentions, many are untrained to work with people who have often experienced severe trauma. Children in the camps can also be emotionally harmed as they form attachments with volunteers who are only there for a few weeks at a time.

All of this stands in stark contrast with the way that thousands of Ukrainian refugees heading to Greece after the Russian invasion have been welcomed and offered jobs, many of them in tourism. That has led to criticism of a two-tier refugee system, with some migrants viewed as more deserving of support than others.

What you can do to support migrants in Greece
Visit islands like Lesbos, Paros and Kos, and show solidarity. There are many migrant-friendly businesses on the islands, and local people still concerned about refugees and trying to support them – including rescuing them at sea.

If you want to offer support to migrants in Greece, don’t bring hand-outs on vacation. Instead, donate to one the many organisations that support asylum seekers and refugees in Greece and elsewhere such as Refugee Action and Global Giving – they know what’s needed most and will ensure your money has the greatest impact.

Volunteering in Greek migrant camps is not something to be undertaken lightly. You should join a registered organisation that offers adequate training rather than throwing you in at the deep end. If you don’t have suitable training or experience, consider if your presence will be genuinely helpful and if you might not be able to do more good from home, such as by organising genuinely needed donations.

Wildlife & environment

Greece wildfires

Greece has a ‘summer wildfire season’ so regular that firefighters can schedule it into their calendars with bleak confidence. During the historic heatwave that hit the country in 2021, fires killed three people and burned many homes to the ground.

Wildfires in southern Europe aren’t a new thing, but the climate crisis makes them larger, fiercer and more likely, with more areas susceptible due to drought. It’s not only the mainland, but the islands too, with local people and tourists sometimes facing evacuations.

Combating the fires is a pan-European effort. Romanian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Norwegian and German firefighters have all lent a hand, while Turkey and Russia have also sent teams to assist Greek firefighters in the past. Scaling up in this manner aims to get a handle on conflagrations before they burn out of control.

Fire has always been a part of nature. It can bring necessary change and renewal. But fires of the intensity and regularity Greece is experiencing now are a different matter. It’s thought that over several years they could degrade to the soil that endemic plants, used to fire, may become endangered. Places like Mount Parnith and parts of the Peloponnese are still scarred by conflagrations from 2007.

What you can do to help prevent wildfires in Greece
Be extremely careful when it comes to anything that could cause a fire. A discarded match or cigarette butt, a broken piece of glass reflecting the sun’s rays, or an unattended barbecue on a patch of tinder-dry grass can all cause potentially devastating fires. If you see glass anywhere in the scrub, remove it.

When wildfires do start, it can take days or even weeks of strenuous, dangerous work by firefighting crews to get them under control. If you’re traveling in Greece, especially during summer when the climate is at its most hot and dry, then be alert to warnings and follow official advice, and don’t take any unnecessary risks.

And if you should come across a fire, don’t try and fight it yourself but seek help immediately from the fire brigade and local people.

Why are there so many cats in Greece?

Greece has hundreds of thousands of feral cats and dogs. The reason is that for years little effort was made to control their populations through spaying and neutering, and now it’s rare to walk down a street without being followed by a pair of hungry eyes hoping for a dropped gyro.

Many of these animals are diseased, malnourished or aggressive. They survive on scraps and the kindness of local people and passing tourists. Despite pressure from the European Union, through which the Greek government is supposed to enforce animal protection laws, the authorities do little to look after them. In fact, they are viewed as pests in many places – poisonings are sadly common.

There are several non-governmental shelters and welfare organisations around Greece doing what they can. As well as running neutering and vaccination programmes, they will often try to send animals abroad for adoption, although this is an expensive process.

What you can do to help stray animals in Greece
Don’t feed dogs or cats you meet on the street, as this encourages them to beg which makes them an annoyance to local people. In fact, it’s best not to go near them at all, as they may be aggressive or diseased.

Donate to shelters and welfare organisations such as Greek Animal Rescue and Friends of the Strays of Greece to help with the costs of shelter, food and veterinary care.

If you’re thinking of adopting a cat or dog from Greece, organisations such as those above can help. Be aware that there can be substantial costs involved with rehoming, and the animal’s welfare must come first, so think very carefully about it before making the commitment.

How will climate change affect vacations in Greece?

Climate change in Greece means more heat, more wildfires, and degraded beaches. Greece has long been one of the most popular vacation destinations in Europe and that will continue. But travelers will increasingly look to avoid the peak summer months when possible, and take fire season into account when deciding where to go.

Will climate change cause more wildfires in Greece?

The climate crisis means that Greece is suffering from more intense heat and lower rainfall, which means that the risk of wildfires starting and rapidly spreading across parched landscapes is substantially higher.

Greece, along with a depressingly large number of other countries, suffers from devastating wildfires most years now. Images of tourist resorts illuminated by flames in the surrounding hills are becoming more and more common. These conflagrations destroy communities, put lives at risk and can take weeks, if not months, to fully extinguish. They also do massive damage to nature, scorching vegetation that may never grow back properly.

Itís been estimated that by 2050, the number of days when Greece is at high risk of fire will grow by between 15 and 70 percent which will naturally start to put people off visiting places that are regularly affected. These include the islands as well as mainland areas such as the Peloponnese.

Will vacations in Greece get hotter?

By the end of this century itís entirely possible that Greece could see summer temperatures upwards of 50įC. Warmer weather will mean a longer tourist season in Greece, but one that is likely to be more disrupted by extreme weather events such as heatwaves and fires. Less wind will also make it feel like itís hotter than it actually is, which can make popular Greece vacation activities such as walking and cycling less appealing in summer. There is a risk that, if temperatures do rise significantly, that many people will be put off traveling to Greece entirely, especially in summer.

It should be noted of course that Greece has been coping with hot weather for a long time. While Greeks began whitewashing their houses in the 1930s to limit the spread of cholera, this is also very effective at keeping the interiors cool. Itís common for people to take a nap during the hottest part of the day. As temperatures go up however itís likely that the siesta time will be expanded, and tourism activities will focus more on the early mornings and late afternoons into evenings.

How is Greece adapting to climate change?

The overwhelming majority of Greek people say they are worried about climate crisis and its effects, and some 60 percent are in favour of their government bringing in stricter environmental measures to try and change behaviours. Hopefully that will result in firm action. And while there are concerns about the cost, initiatives including ídecarbonisingí tourist islands through massive increases in renewable energy and creating sustainable off grid networks are underway too.

Sea level rise will see beaches and patches of coastline on both the mainland and the Greek islands begin to degrade and disappear. Trees that hold soil together are often uprooted to make way for resorts and hotels at the waterís edge Ė tree-planting programs could help counteract the effects of rising seas though of course young trees are nowhere near as effective as mature ones. The most important thing is to end deforestation.

Responsible tour operators are taking steps to help marine life, which faces numerous threats from climate change such as declining food sources and shrinking habitats such as kelp forests, where it can find sanctuary from predators. For example, dolphin conservation vacations might include a donation to the charity Mom which protects marine and coastal environments in an effort to save the critically endangered monk seal, as well as collecting data on dolphin populations in the area.

What you can do
Vote well. Watching as politicians debate and argue endlessly while carbon emissions continue to go up is frustrating, but only by voting for decision-makers who take the climate crisis seriously will we see significant change happen. We donít have time anymore to humour political leaders who deny the science or who are in thrall to donations from polluting businesses.

Whatever time of year youíre traveling in Greece, take exceptional care not to accidentally start any fires. Extinguish cigarettes properly, donít leave any glass lying around (as it can magnify the sunís rays) and remove any that you see.

Responsible tourism tips in Greece

The Ionian Islands are key breeding sites for the Mediterraneanís endangered loggerhead turtle, and designated nesting beaches on islands like Zakynthos are off-limits between dusk and dawn when the turtles come ashore to lay eggs. Nesting season is June to early August, with hatchlings emerging two months later Ė all events that coincide closely with peak vacation season. Avoid using beach umbrellas on dry sand areas as you run the risk of piercing buried eggs Ė and flatten any sandcastles which could act as obstacles for nesting turtles. You can get further information from Archelon Ė or our guide to volunteering with turtles in Greece. Itís also a good idea to avoid taking the popular boating trips in the Bay of Laganas during turtle nesting season because of the risk of collision with swimming turtles. Donít buy natural sponges from shops. They will almost certainly have been collected irresponsibly, with devastating results for marine ecosystems. The same applies to any coral products. Do all you can to support rural communities and traditions. Rural areas suffer from migration to cities because of lack of local opportunities to earn a living. Community-based tourism based on using locally run accommodation, tours, restaurants and food from nearby producers can play a key role in providing money and opportunities to help locals Ė especially young people Ė believe they and their communities have a future where they are, thus helping maintain the life and traditions of rural Greece. Consider a dolphin and whale watching tour in which you can aid research that contributes to monitoring and conservation of the local dolphin population. However, not all dolphin and whale trips fall under the banner of responsible tourism. Many tours that offer a chance to swim may also be poorly conceived and conducted, and therefore irresponsible. Please fully consider the environmental policies of any operator before considering a tour. Avoid water parks in Greece that use captive dolphins and other animals to perform tricks, which is something we oppose outright. Read our guide to responsible tourism dolphin watching. When walking in Greece, always stick to marked trails to avoid damaging fragile habitat and follow the principles of Leave No Trace. Support organisations like Andros Routes, which helps to develop sustainable tourism on the northernmost of the Cyclades by preserving a network of ancient walking trails. So far, they have restored and signposted 160km of routes, including the 100km Andros Route which tracks the length of the island. In doing so they are also researching the islandís flora and fauna, monuments and old place names, as well as recording oral histories from local people on an island that has been inhabited since antiquity.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alex Antoniadis] [Overtourism: Lauren Jankowski] [Wildfires: Lotus R]