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Zakynthos, an Ionian Island to the west of central mainland Greece, is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. With the allure of its beautiful blue water, dramatic rocks and cliffs that jut straight out of the sea, pleasant weather and a multitude of sandy beaches, Zakynthos drew around a million annual visitors in pre-Covid times – a large number for an island with around forty thousand inhabitants.
But Zakynthos is not only known for tourism. Its beaches provide some of the Mediterranean’s most important nesting sites for the loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta. Over the past three decades, the island has been a testing ground of sorts for finding a balance between conservation and the tourism industry.
The global pandemic took a toll on Zakynthos and places like it that rely heavily on tourism. How does the tourism industry recover from the blow, and could it do so with a larger focus on conservation and sustainability than before? “Zakynthos is a particular area that has a lot to show us,” said Demetres Karavellas, CEO of WWF Greece, during the Blue Panda Lab that took place last July, and centered on the case study of Zakynthos and the lessons we can learn from it.
“My father was the person who practically started organized tourism on the island of Zakynthos back in the early 1970s,” recounts Antonis Nikoloudakis, a hotel owner of the island. When his father built a large hotel complex, the island looked very different from now. Today, tourism infrastructure is highly developed, with resorts, hotels and services, and certain parts of Zakynthos have gained a reputation for the excesses of nightlife. “It was a virgin area at the time,” says Nikoloudakis. Now himself the owner of the Atlantica Eleon Grand Resort and Vice-Chairman of the Zakynthos Tourism Committee, Antonis has witnessed the development of the island’s tourism sector up close.
“In the 1980s, throughout Greece and Zakynthos as well, tourism started to explode,” Nikoloudakis recalls. In the late 1980s, he finished his studies and began to work in the family business in Zakynthos. Mass tourism was picking up speed, and development accelerated to meet the increasing demand.
Demetres Karavellas, now CEO of WWF Greece, began his work in conservation in Zakynthos around that time. He, too, recalls the period. “Friendly people, beautiful nature, amazing beaches, and low prices all contributed to making [Zakynthos] a very popular destination.”
But, the tourism industry wasn’t alone in staking a claim to Zakynthos’ pristine coastline. “It had already been established at that time that Laganas Bay had six nesting beaches that were critically important to the loggerhead sea turtle and also very important for other species: Mediterranean monk seals, Posidonia, Eleonora’s falcons,” Karavellas says.
“So, what we had from the beginning was one mass tourism hotspot and one biodiversity hotspot in the exact same location. At that time, in the early 1990s, we were already seeing the impact of tourism on these nesting beaches.”
Things came to a head quickly when the environmental movement began to take steps to protect the nesting beaches. As it is today, much of the local community’s income was dependent on attracting and catering to tourists. The first representatives of the conservation movement, on the other hand, were not locals. “They were a mix of interesting personalities and individuals with a lot of idealism, but they did not know how to communicate with the people here,” says Nikoloudakis. “The local people did not welcome the environmental organizations and looked at them as unfriendly hippies, who came to tell them what to do with their property, and with their lives,” Nikoloudakis says. “The truth was somewhere in the middle.”
Besides, much of what was done thirty years ago in terms of development was perfectly legal, Nikoloudakis points out. Back then, neither regulations nor awareness were at the same level as they are today.
Unlike many other business owners, Nikoloudakis’ family took a different approach: they opened their doors to the environmental movement, understanding that the conservation of the beaches and the sea turtles was, in the long run, going to benefit everyone. “For a long time, the status of our family and of our business was a haven of safety for the environmental organizations. That gave them the time to create roots and to have a basis on the island.”
“I grew up on the island here, I love this place, and I felt sorry to see a lot of this wonderful habitat being slowly destroyed. I could not bear it. So I said, “we have to do something.” At the same time, we are a business family, and we had to find a golden rule of coexistence.”
The new arrivals had to do more than their scientific field work, Nikoloudakis says. They had to learn about diplomacy and coexistence with other stakeholders. “So, Zakynthos was a hothouse that produced personalities that today, some decades later, are the leaders of the environmental movement’s biggest organizations in Greece, like WWF and Greenpeace.”
Following a pan-European campaign, WWF Greece purchased Sekania, today the most important Caretta caretta nesting beach on Zakynthos, in 1994.
“When we announced that that was going to happen, lots of people thought we were crazy,” says Demetres Karavellas. It seemed incomprehensible that an NGO would buy land just to conserve it. “Others, of course, didn't believe us. I remember at the time headlines of local newspapers saying that WWF was going to build Club Med on Sekania.” That, of course, did not happen. Today, Sekania records one of the biggest loggerhead sea turtle nesting densities worldwide.
The National Marine Park of Zakynthos (NMPZ) was established in 1999. It was the first national park with a management agency in Greece. At the core of it is the protection of the nesting habitats of Caretta caretta and other vulnerable species such as the endangered Mediterranean monk seal.
Sekania remains the most important beach, where around half of the recorded Caretta caretta nests in the NMPZ are found. That means 600-1000 nests each year. Sekania is fully closed to outsiders and only scientific research is permitted there. “The characteristics of the sand, the beach dynamic and the protection of this coastal habitat ensure that the turtles find their paradise every year.” says Charikleia Minotou, manager of WWF Greece’s activities in Sekania.
Laurent Sourbes, now coordinator of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos, was also one of the people to arrive on Zakynthos in the late 1990s. Originally a native of France, he spent several summers as a student working in Port-Cros in France, the first National Marine Park in the Mediterranean. While there, he had observed the importance of establishing ties across the Mediterranean. “So when I came here, I understood immediately that we wouldn’t manage if we were alone.”
Sourbes began by teaching about environmental issues and applied to work at the National Marine Park when it began to hire in 2000. “It was a beginning from nowhere,” he now recalls. “Empty office, no chairs, no tables, no computers. No knowledge, because in Greece it was really the first time.”
In the beginning, the most urgent matter was to secure the nesting areas during the summer. “It was a big adventure, we didn’t know if we would stay one year, two years, three years, and now it has been 20 years.”
“When we began here, it was a kind of war.” It was impossible for foreigners to be a part of it, unless one learned to speak Greek. And Sourbes did.
Learning the language, cooperation, and social relationships all operate on the basis of respect, Soubes says. It’s taken 20 years, but it’s bearing fruit. “I can see a change in behaviors, and slowly we have integrated this environmental component in our lives.”
Over the two decades, the waves of tourism have seen some ebb and flow. “After 2012 or 2013, after the very serious economic crisis in Greece, it was a new era. This new era means a huge increase in tourism.” Increased tourism means more pressure on the nesting areas and more need for monitoring.
Sourbes emphasizes the importance of collaborating across the Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean. “For the sea turtles protection of this area is a positive thing, but you have to ensure that where they go for wintering will also be efficient.”
Tourism on Zakynthos came to a grinding halt as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. To date, visitors’ numbers have not recovered to pre-COVID levels, and many hotels continue to keep their doors closed.
For many on the island, this means financial struggle. “We are depending on tourism as an island, either directly or indirectly,” says Maria Lougari, owner of the sustainably run Castelli hotel.
While business awaits the return of visitors, the sea turtles have taken advantage of the lull in human activity, and have been approaching the coastline more than when there are people around, Sourbes says. “The reduced pressure may not have had an impact on the nesting activity, but it was important to make the comparison.”
Still, there doesn’t need to be conflict between tourism and conservation, says Nikoloudakis. “The existence of the National Marine Park of Zakynthos not only saved the habitat of the sea turtles,” he says. “In my opinion, it actually saved the tourism industry as well.” The conservation efforts were able to recover some of what had been damaged. “The broader area of Laganas Bay still survives healthily more or less as a tourist destination because of the restrictions that were imposed in the name of environmental protection. Some people didn’t realize it then, some people don’t realize it today.”
During the discussion at the Blue Panda Lab, most speakers called for a more sustainable model of tourism in the world after the pandemic. Not only is it what more travelers look for today, it’s also encouraged by the European Union as part of its recovery roadmap.
For hoteliers like Nikoloudakis and Lougari, accounting for the environment comes naturally. Both of their hotels operate on principles of sustainability and believe that healthy nature is in many ways a prerequisite for having something meaningful to offer for visitors. “There’s no bigger misconception than thinking that being sustainable is not profitable,” says Nikoloudakis.