Building fever grips Greece as tourism booms

By Hélène COLLIOPOULOU

It’s early morning in the picturesque village of Naoussa on the Greek island of Paros, and jackhammers are already echoing as locals ready for what they hope will be a record tourist season.

After two bad years because of the pandemic, tourist numbers bounced back spectacularly last year, and this summer the Aegean island hopes to do even better.

Construction sites are abuzz all over the fishing village with its whitewashed houses typical of the Cyclades.

“It’s crazy right now,” said local plumber Nikos Kritikos, hammering away at an old sewer pipe of a house under renovation.

“Everyone is repairing, painting… to be on time”, he told AFP.

At the house next door, where three new rental rooms will soon be available, workmen are unloading boxes of tiles and ceramic slabs from a truck.

And across the street, a complex with a swimming pool owned by a real estate fund is taking shape.

Tourist arrivals in Greece hit 27.8 million last year, an 89.3-percent increase over the previous year, according to the Bank of Greece.

Revenue this year is expected to match that high of 17.6 billion euros, according to the association of Greek tourism enterprises.

“The tourist season this year will be the best ever,” said Paros mayor Markos Kovaios, with the island’s permanent population of 15,000 increasing five fold last summer.

Tourism accounts for nearly a quarter of Greece’s GNP, and has been instrumental in helping to shore up the country’s economy during the pandemic.

But as with other European travel hotspots such as Barcelona and Venice, some are beginning to wonder whether the tourism boom has gone too far.

– ‘No limits’ –

“All for profit, no limits,” grumbled Kostantis Haniotis, a cafe owner in the traditional village of Lefkes.

Nearby tourism complexes and luxurious villas are sprouting up, some tucked away in ravines.

“Tourist overexploitation” has brought a rise in the cost of living, Haniotis said.

In the past, Paros, like many other tourist hotspots, had some agricultural life. But today only a few olive groves and vineyards remain. And fishing has been changed by the tourism industry’s gastronomic requirements.

“In the 1990s families would build a house for their children… now it’s non-stop building for tourists”, said Kritikos.

The plumber said he fears his island will “turn into Mykonos”, the neighbouring Cycladic island famous as a destination for the international jet set.

Another Cycladic island, Sifnos, earlier this month called on the state to rein in “unbridled” tourism growth.

On Mykonos in particular many fear the situation has gotten out of hand.

Last month an archaeologist tasked with monitoring illegal construction on the island was badly beaten outside his home in Athens.

A Greek police squad specialising in organised crime is investigating the case.

– Not ‘above the law’ –

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis convened a special cabinet meeting on the issue, at which he vowed to enforce building laws and improve policing on Mykonos.

“Having an island where certain people think they are above the law is inconceivable,” said Mitsotakis, who faces voters in a May 21 general election.

According to the chairwoman of the association of Greek archaeologists, Despina Koutsoumba, state checks often come after a building permit has already been issued by urban planning officials.

And developers are not bothered by fines because there is so much money to be made, she told AFP.

Jally Paraschi, who rents a villa in Lefkes, fears that overbuilding will cost Paros its “traditional character”.

“The road network is very limited and cannot change because available space has been taken up by construction,” she said.

Panagiotis Galanis, a lawyer specialising in town planning law, said that local authorities “are often lax for economic reasons”.

Paros mayor Kovaios countered that a new town planning office was created this year on the island to “intensify controls”.

But even he admitted that rising rents on the island are increasingly beyond the reach of civil servants and tourism staff. — Agence France-Presse

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