The Ecoclub Green Destination series:
Live online events are one of the few positive side effects of the pandemic, beyond helping us maintain our sanity, they can help us plan ahead for the great return of tourism, to give real meaning to the catchphrase “building back better”. In this context we inaugurated on 28 February 2021, the Ecoclub Green Destinations series. The meetings are recorded and live streamed and are available on our YouTube channel.
We believe that a green destination is not one that presents a green image to visitors but one that is genuinely green, for visitors and hosts alike, in that its tourism model succeeds in meeting the key needs and aspirations of the local community, supports necessary public infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and public transport without creating an excessive impact on the natural and cultural environment and resources and without becoming a tourism monoculture, crowding out traditional economic sectors such as agriculture, but rather supports it by the exclusive use of local organic products. The destinations that we will be examining in this series are not fully sustainable, very few destinations are if we consider air transport pollution, extra electricity and water consumption by tourists, and waste management, but these destinations, effectively key people in these destinations are making a serious effort. Our intention is to review and encourage these efforts rather than beautify their results.
Ecoclub wants to showcase eco-friendly destinations without glorifying them, present green accomplishments, remaining challenges and key threats. Highly accomplished local practitioners and green tourism experts are invited to present their projects in the greater context of a particular destination, which also be a route or a village. Thus the presentation is split between what the expert does, where and why for whom and with whom. We are trying to appeal to both discerning tourists and practitioners. We also want to cover how the pandemic has affected the destination and if certain things need to be done differently from now on in the destination, building back truly better!
Ecoclub Green Destinations - 1st Live Event – Kythera Island, Greece
When: Sunday 28 February at 19:00 Athens time (17:00 UTC)
Topic: "Kythera Trails - building a sustainable destination at the heart of the Mediterranean"
Presentation by Rigas Zafeiriou, a consultant/researcher for the Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (MedINA) and local manager of Kythera Trails, the trail network & sustainable tourism development programme of Kythera Island. Rigas is also programmes director at the Kytherian Foundation for Culture & Development while he has worked for Paths of Greece on trail research and design on other islands of Greece. As a tour leader, Rigas has designed and facilitated 30+ multiday trail adventures for various agencies, including REI, Trekking Hellas, Ross Holidays and more.
Please find background notes below. To watch the presentation please click here
We started the Ecoclub Green Destination series with Kythera, a largely remaining off-the-beaten track, small (278 km2) Greek island south of the Peloponnese, between the Ionian and the Aegean, with a permanent population of just 4,000 people living in three small towns and 65 villages. It has a colourful history and culture being occupied or attacked by Minoans, Phoenicians, Myceneans, Spartans, Athenians (in a way it is still held by the Athenians as it incomprehensibly belongs to the Attica Region which is far away!), Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Slavs, a Venetian stronghold for 6 centuries, besieged by Barbary Pirates and the Ottomans, followed by the French, the Russians and the British who left a good road network and a unique institution which owns communal property. In 1864 the island joined the rest of Greece but development largely eluded it, and many Kytherians migrated to mainland Greece and abroad, as a result today there is an active Kytherian diaspora in the US, Australia and Germany. A Kytherian expert, the very knowledgeable Mr Rigas Zafeiriou will educate us today on the achievements and the challenges that this green destination faces. Mr Zafeiriou is a consultant and researcher for the Mediterranean Institute for Nature and ‘Anthropos’ MedINA and local manager of Kythera Trails, the trail network & sustainable tourism development programme of Kythera Island. Mr Zafeiriou is also programmes director at the Kytherian Foundation for Culture & Development, while he has also worked for Paths of Greece on trail research and design on many Greek islands. As a Tour leader, he has designed and facilitated over 30 multi day trail adventures for various leading tour operators in Greece.
Important sites include medieval villages (Mitata, Mylopotamos, Karavas. Chora), over 300 Byzantine era churches, the Venetian Castles of the Chora (1502) and Mylopotamos (1565), the 19th c. Katouni bridge, the largest stone bridge in Greece, Palaiopoli, the capital during Byzantine years, the Kastri, a proto-Minoan archaeological site, the archaeological museum, St Sophia Cave in Mylopotamos and Chousti Cave in Diakofti with important archaeological findings going back to 5000 BCE. Unfortunately, Chousti cave has not yet been developed for tourism. There are also over 20 watermills and a large waterfall, which is quite rare for a small Mediterranean island.
Local products include Thyme honey and Erica honey, olive oil, wine, “tsipoura” (grappa), salt, “paximadia” (bread rusks), milk, various local cheeses, traditional pasta, barley, wheat and corn. Organic Agriculture is steadily growing.
The island has an international airport (named after Onassis' son, Alexander). Direct International Arrivals grew from zero before 2004 to 6,739 in 2015, but fell to 3,938 in 2018. Domestic Arrivals are steadily growing: they doubled from 8,877 in 2003 to 15,385 in 2018. Transavia.com and Danish Air transport operate charter flights to Netherlands and Denmark, respectively. There are daily flights to Athens with Aegean/Olympic and SkyExpress, a smaller private airline.
The accommodation capacity was slowly rising before the pandemic, it was at 1,085 beds in 2017 up from 1,053 in 2015. Some 260 properties are listed on Airbnb in March 2021. Booking.com lists 106 accommodation facilities, of which 9 are four-star hotels, 25 Hotels, 60 Apartments, 21 Summer houses, 6 Villas, 5 Guesthouses. However, a new 188-room, 5 star accommodation is being developed in Kalamos.
A big fire in August 2017 decimated 2,500 hectares or a tenth of the island. It damaged a cedar forest in the Kalami and Limnionas areas.
Public transport is a problem: in 2019 there was only one bus, operating in July and August, and no service in winter.
There are passenger boat connections throughout the year with Piraeus and Kasteli of Crete and part of the year with Gytheio and Neapoli of Lakonia.
Waste management has improved in recent years as the island landfill was upgraded and made more orderly after 2017. Other Greek islands of similar size that and more popular with tourists are experiencing far greater difficulties with waste management. There is one sewage treatment facility in Kapsali and another one is being built in Agia Pelagia.
The permanent population has slowly grown from 3,161 in 1991 to 4,041 in 2011. Yet, over 40% of the old houses are reportedly still vacant throughout the year, because of emigration. Another 20% are listed as summer houses. This reveals a business opportunity to Airbnb property developers which could be considered a threat to the current tourism model.
Presentation, Key Points:
A summary of Mr Rigas Zafeiriou’s presentation appears below:
Building a green destination is not an easy task, and our programme is by no means a perfect one. In Kythera, as in other Mediterannean coastal and island destinations accessible by cheap flights, there are tourism pressures, scarce water resources, congestion and a rising cost of living. However, the Island has so far avoided overtourism despite its 60 beaches. As a result of its tumultuous history, it has an impressive cultural heritage, tangible and intangible. There is a dramatic diversity of landscapes with extensive dry stone complexes, secluded beaches, 65 traditional villages and untouched cultural landscapes. Its five major settlements are under official protection status for their architectural value, so new buildings and conversions are strictly regulated. There are 147 protected monuments and archeological sites, local traditions are very much alive including the culinary culture. There are 820 plant species of which 55 are endemic, many Natura 2000 Areas, Important Bird Areas, and Special Protection Areas. Kythera’s seas and coves are also an important habitat for the endangered Mediterannean monk seal (Monachus).
Tourism has a slight but steady growth, with a very short 4-week peak season (mid-July to mid-August) and a spatial concentration on the coastline, as a result most local tourism businesses just break even. The key environmental impact is the stress on water resources during the Summer.
We have tried to introduce an alternative model. Since 2010, we started bringing the old trails back to life. We have applied the INCREAte Approach (designed by the MedINA), to integrate culture and nature for better conservation outcomes, through a collaborative approach. We determined that the main economic drivers are Tourism and Agriculture, that natural hazards include vulnerability to climate change, depletion of water resources and wildfires such as the disaster of 2017. Other socioeconomic issues include out-migration, an aging population, land abandonment and land use change. Kythera Trails (Web: www.kytheratrails.gr) became the official trail network, run by the Municipality of Kythera with the help of the Kytherian Foundation for Culture & Development, the Domestic Estate Management Committee of Kythera & Antikythera (the largest, communal, landowner of Kythera Island) and the Mediterranean Institute for Nature and ‘Anthropos’ (MedINA). Today there are 11 trails of 100 km in total.
We focus on Experiential Travel, personalized authentic experiences for visitors and creating an experience economy, Adventure Tourism, Slow Travel and Heritage Tourism, all best represented by hiking in the Trails. The low-cost green infrastructure of the Trails helps lower seasonality and expand tourism in the shoulder-seasons and also triggers community-based conservation. Traditional trails are repaired, and signposted, while new circular trails are created, thanks to the technical expertise of Paths of Greece. MedINA has conducted an ethnographic study to save local knowledge for storytelling along the trails, researched and recorded 425 Points of Interest of Cultural and Natural Heritage in these trails. An application for smartphones is being developed. As a result, the two first trails in Europe that are certified with the Green Flag for Sustainable Management by the World Trails Network are in Kythera. The island is also the first small Greek island to have a Via Ferrata in Kakia Lagada Gorge (iron trail for canyoning). Local Sunday walks are organised for the inhabitants of Kythera to build local awareness and local support for the trails. Nearly all tour operators are small local companies. To combat water scarcity, traditional micro-dams are being restored and fully integrated in the trails network. The dams also support wildlife and migrating birds. Other projects include biodiversity-friendly olive groves and ‘Hikers-friendly’ certification for Accommodation.
We hope to develop an integrated model of sustainable tourism on Kythera and the smaller, nearby Antikythera Island. Key lessons we learned so far are that “applying a different model is difficult, green infrastructure is crucial, common vision is the foundation, a broad open-ended collaboration is a must while management has to be adaptive and ‘loose” to allow space to independent actors.
Responding to questions from the Ecoclub Editor and the Audience, Mr Zafeiriou informed us that:
- Pandemic Effects: the island has been affected by the pandemic even though it is not dependent on mass tourism. The hiking season of 2020 was directly impacted as there were zero connections, but other destinations whose economy is not as diversified have suffered more. The pandemic has helped us rethink tourism. Outdoor tourism activities such as hiking are suited for the post-pandemic period.
- Development Pressures: the island has “space” for development however the organisations he represents want to divert this development to a sustainable direction. The unique for Greece, local communal land ownership model serves as a barrier to uncontrolled development, as does the protected (listed) status of the five traditional settlements. House renovations for tourist use largely respect the local heritage.
- Wind Farms: a threat includes pressures for ‘out of scale’ plans to create wind farms on Kythera. If they materialize, it’s going to result in the biggest transformation of the Kytherian landscape in 7,000 years. Kythera is also a major bird migration corridor.
- Funding: for the Trails comes from the four supporting organisations, various sources, donations, European programmes, the municipality of Kythera. This allowed for 100% maintenance of trails during the pandemic. Attracting funds for maintenance is more difficult than for creating the trails, thus we are running a community adoption programme for trails. Hiking tourists, especially repeat-tourists could also be asked to donate while voluntourists could help with maintenance.
- Farming: There are plans for greater promotion of organic farming to tourists, in the context of the olive groves for biodiversity. There are product cooperatives on the island, one for beekeepers and a farmers’ (mainly olive growing) cooperative. The University of the Aegean is also providing support in this field.
- Bird Hunting, a traditional practice on the island, was a livelihood strategy, just as fishing. Mr Zafeiriou does not currently consider it as a major issue in terms of Bird migration. Hunting tourism is not promoted.