By Phil Butler
So-called “overtourism” in Greece and Cyprus has less to do with the destination’s desirability than with infrastructure and accessibility.
It is a symptom of a broader problem. While it’s easy and convenient to blame businesses or even the government for what’s an unsustainable practice, the cold reality is that we’re not committed as guests, clients, or citizens of the world.
There’s an abundance of evidence supporting the claim. Take reports like “Is Overtourism Ruining Greece Beaches.” We’ve been informed. Still, our commitments are weak. And while it’s convenient to lay all the blame on government and business, we all must assume responsibility.
Some of you may recall how Cyprus made environmental news for having Europe’s highest water stress levels. You may also remember how in 2018, Intrepid Travel rated Cyprus as the 8th worst country on the planet for overtourism. And most people in the travel business understand that both Cyprus and Greece have real problems tourism sustainability-wise.
Carrying capacity is the key to overtourism in Greece
However, while the numbers of tourists are vital causal factors, travelers are not the root problem. A discussion with Sotiris Milonas, a renowned hotel sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) expert in Greece, hit the real problem.
Here’s what Milonas had to say when he was asked if Crete, Greece’s biggest island, has too many hotels:
“This question is linked to the so-called carrying capacity. Personally, I do not think there are too many hotels. Yes, some areas are stressed, but overtourism is not a characteristic of the Greek tourism market.
“The thing that matters though is the infrastructure design that will support the tourism stream and also the obligations of hotel businesses regarding sustainability so that the infrastructure will be sufficient and at the same time will not harm the environment and community. How much tourism do we want? I think we can all agree that it is our national product, that is why we want mechanisms and legislation on sustainability.”
Carrying capacity is the key to every overtourism situation. As logical as this may seem, it’s also a fact that’s been obscured by other aspects. But, what’s most interesting here is that geography, infrastructure, and demand are the root problem. Surprisingly, it turns out that the number of tourists who can be supported in a sustainable way on islands like Crete and Cyprus may be much larger than anticipated.
From a sustainable growth standpoint, the problem seems to be that the supply side of tourism/hospitality has been built on old infrastructure. The best, and now most popular resorts tend to be clustered where roads and utilities existed first.
Greece has space for more hotels
For those who’ve been to Crete, the overcrowding of places like Hersonissos, for instance, has less to do with the destination’s desirability than with infrastructure and accessibility.
While it’s a beautiful seaside resort area compared to the pristine beaches of South Crete, it’s now a kind of Greek Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. It’s desirable for a tourism segment, but not the Crete usually advertised internationally.
We contacted Emmanouil Tavladorakis, an executive whose family owns the Albatros Spa & Resort Hotel in Hersonisos. We asked the executive the same question as Milonas, about too many hotels. Here’s his answer, which turned out to be insightful:
“Crete, despite being a developed tourist destination, still has space for more hotels. This occurs mainly due to the low infrastructure (one of the worst road networks in Europe), which results in a vast majority of hotels being concentrated in specific areas, such as Platanias – Aghia Marina in Chania, Adelianos Kampos in Rethymno, and Hersonissos and Malia in Heraklion.”
The bad clustering of accommodations is a function of planning, geography, and not inviting too many tourists. When we asked Tavladorakis if sustainable tourism is an inevitable end, he answered:
“From one side more and more people are becoming environmentally conscious. However, personally, I doubt if they truly want to adapt to this new reality.
“To give an example, taking into consideration that Crete, and Greece in general are based on mass tourism of ‘sun and sea’, there are hotels in Crete during the low season that sell room nights to Tour Operators for less than €20 per night per person. Those hotels have only limited profitability.
“Hence, only if sustainable tourism is combined with improved performance and profitability, hoteliers and operators will look towards greener options.”
Travelers, by and large, are not demanding, nor do they seem willing to pay for sustainability. This is a hard pill to swallow for consumer advocates, but it’s a reality. Think about it. What is it that hotel businesses do? What do all businesses do? Buyer expectations and demand determine the product. But you cannot buy a Rolex for the price of a Timex.
Rethinking of purpose
These revelations can also be applied to Cyprus, an island getaway with a slightly more upscale infrastructure.
Georgos Motsios, an experienced Cyprus hotelier is in the process of recreating a traditional 2-star budget stay at Protaras on the southwest edge of the island.
A weathered older property overlooking the beaches now renamed Cavo Zoe Seaside Hotel serves as a template for broader sustainability efforts.
“Cyprus is blessed with generous nature. Unfortunately, we have not shown the proper respect for our environment. I fear the costs which we are already paying, will be unbearable for the next generations,” Motsios says.
“We need to act accordingly with vigilance toward public education, and especially a unified business-governmental approach to proper legislation. Things like incentives and well thought out policies will ensure that the trademark of Cyprus is that of being an island of prosperity.”
The before and after of this hotel tells the story in one way. However, Cavo Zoe’s underlying experience is a more poignant example of transformation. What was a cheap place to stay overlooking the beach is not becoming famous as a wedding venue that takes advantage of the surrounding infrastructure and culture.
The rethinking of purpose is another critical idea to bring about more sustainable and lucrative hospitality. As the others suggested, profitability and improved performance go hand in hand. Cavo Zoe has reimagined everything from hotel aesthetics to gastronomy.
Revelations are sometimes painful and sometimes pleasant. It’s pleasing to find hospitality people doing what they are trained to do. It’s painful to know we must pay the price for the future. Who else should?