Yannis Vardakastanis was a kid in the 1960s, he would be alone in the sandy
Gerakas (‘falcon’) beach of the Ionian island of Zakynthos (Zante) in Greece and
able to go out swimming with turtles and dolphins. Every late summer the beach
would turn black with turtle hatchlings which did not bother and were not
bothered by anyone except sea gulls...
In the 1970s like many before him, he left his island as a
teenage sailor on freighters to the Far East to somehow end up as a centre
forward playing for Lincoln City Football Club in the UK. In the 1980s, as the
first package tourists from the UK started landing on his island, it was time to
follow them, this time as a Gerakas beach bar proprietor serving up drinks to
tourists sitting not very far from the hatchlings.
In 1990 he realised there was something wrong. In his own
words: "I was witnessing the rampant growth of mass tourism and building
development on the island, encroaching on and destroying the islands vital
turtle nesting beaches. I decided that at Gerakas it all had to go. The number
of beach umbrellas was halved, the pedaloes banned and my bar was torn down and
moved off the beach, with no further building development on Gerakas to be
permitted." So in 1991 he embarked again, this time on a very different journey,
that of environmental activism, genuine ecotourism and conservation focusing on
Gerakas, through his companies
Ionian Eco Villagers
and Nature World Travel, and his conservation group Earth, Sea & Sky (Web:
which was first set up in 1993, and formally registered as an NGO in 2000.
Joint pressure with other environmentalists has since
succeeded in getting all night flights banned and achieving nocturnal light and
noise restrictions at beachside bars and hotels in Laganas Bay to avoid
disturbing the nocturnal nesting of turtles. A key milestone was in 2006, when
along with other NGO’s active on the island such as Archelon, WWF and Medasset,
they succeeded in a heavy fine being imposed on the Greek government by the
European Union, for failing to properly protect the Zakynthos National Marine
Park (est. 1999). The fine has apparently waken up the authorities and some
progress has been made in the past two years.
In 2006 his organisation joined forces with Sea Life
Centres throughout UK and Europe to launch a Turtle SOS Appeal (see picture).
Together with Sea Life Centres Yannis Vardakastanis is currently undertaking the
construction of a turtle rescue centre on Zakynthos, so that injured and
distressed turtles do not have to undergo an 8-hour journey to the nearest
centre in Athens. In 2005 his work received a High Commendation in the First
Choice Responsible Tourism Awards for ‘Best in a Marine Environment’, and once
more in 2007 in the Virgin Responsible Tourism Awards for ‘Protection of an
Endangered Species’, while Yannis and his team have been featured in many
leading newspapers and TV documentaries.
(The Interview follows:)
You are a finalist at one of the most
prestigious competitions, the 2009 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards.
explain what does your company and your NGO do, and why, that is what do you do
differently from the others?
Yannis Vardakastanis: We focus on
conservation work before business, tailoring the business to compliment the
natural environment - through promotion and protection - and I believe this
provides us with long-term stability and sustainability, as well as an edge over
the other operators in Greece. There are always ways to improve a business, and
for us the focus on protecting the natural environment keeps our business
strong. Our small group of cottages at Gerakas offer a very different experience
to the islands resorts: quiet, modest accommodation in the gardens and olive
groves behind the beach. Nature World travel provides our guests with island
excursions that are sensitive to the local flora and fauna. On these trips a
volunteer working with Earth, Sea & Sky provides guests with vital information
on our conservation projects, the unique wildlife of Zakynthos, and how our
guests can contribute the protection of the area
In a past interview,
Vassilis Kouroutos, a leading conservationist, argued that the main root of the
intense strife between locals and conservationists in Zakynthos, was that the
Greek state never addressed any form of compensation to the landowners /
aspiring tourism entrepreneurs within the Park boundary, either by direct
payment or by compulsory purchase. You however, turned from bar owner to
environmental activist. What prompted your conversion, and how easy was it?
Yannis Vardakastanis: According to the Presidential
Decree passed in 1981, all buildings built on/behind nesting beaches in the
National Marine Park of Zakynthos (NMPZ) are illegal. And yet a comprehensive
package to address the situation failed to be implemented, whether through
compensation, buy-back schemes or incentives for business owners to operate in
an ethical and sensitive way in partnership with the Marine Park. Tourism is an
important generator of income and employment for locals living in and around
National Parks, and therefore mutually beneficial. Yet these critical points
were gravely overlooked, and as such land-owners continue to break the law by
constructing buildings on the nesting beaches of Zakynthos in order to cash in
on the tourism trade. Understandably this has created a great deal tension
between locals and conservationists for many years.
For me personally it
was an easy decision to make at the time, to protect and promote the area seemed
a natural and logical way to run a business. Without the unique beauty of the
landscape, flora and fauna there would be no tourism industry and therefore no
income! But moving my business and making these changes did trigger terrific
fights and disagreements with locals – they thought I was crazy, and many still
do! Even now people are still fighting to get a business on a nesting beach. I’m
the only one on the island to take the initiative and remove buildings from the
nesting beach of Gerakas since the Decree was put in place. My goal to implement
change and encourage others to do the right thing has proven to be the greatest
There are allegations of
over-visitation and turtle-watching tour congestion, which causes distress to
sea turtles in Zakynthos. How satisfied are you with the Park Management
Authority both in terms of conservation and visitor management? What can they
Yannis Vardakastanis: Even though we have the decree to
protect the Marine Park area, this message has not been effectively communicated
to locals - to protect not destroy, to focus on long-term sustainability. As a
result, businesses have tried to make as much money as quickly as possible which
in turn puts immense pressure on the environment as a whole and in particular on
turtle populations. There are too many tourists, turtle chasing activities,
excessive light pollution, human waste and rubbish, all impacting greatly on our
fragile eco-system. We also need to open up the channels of communication and
start to learn and understand better how we can continue to run business and
protect the turtles at the same time. I do believe this is possible if we find
the right balance.
How do you manage to
cooperate, rather than compete, with the multitude of NGOs operating around the
National Marine Park, do you divide the area and/or the issues?
Yannis Vardakastanis: This can be difficult as we do not
always see eye to eye! It is further complicated by the fact that the NMPZ and
the local people are all involved as they too have their own ideas on how to
manage the area and what they want from it. Ultimately I believe we have the
same goal: to ensure the future safety of the Loggerhead whilst also benefiting
the local community.
Have you witnessed a
growing interest from Tourists in wildlife in the past decade? Is it at all
accompanied from an interest in green issues, or is it mere curiosity? How easy
is it to approach and convince those on cheap charter packages seeking little
more than booze and the 4 S's on their holidays? Do you try to approach them at
all, or do you go after a more discerning clientele?
Yannis Vardakastanis: Travellers today are not
travelling just to see the world. They are interested in contributing to the
destinations they visit, giving back to the people that host them during their
stay, who kindly let them into their lives to share their cultures and
surroundings. It’s about becoming part of the place they visit—in some way, big
I believe it is a sincere interest and not just a passing
trend, but to attract a more discerning client we not only have to promote the
area, we have to ensure that we protect it also. It is very difficult to show
people this as the damage that has been done over the last 30 years is
significant and change is taking place slowly. This is why I have kept my focus
on Gerakas to stay as untouched as possible, as the last vestiges of natural
beauty and prominence as a nesting area on this island it must be protected.
The Greek Governments'
pro-growth National Land Use Plan for Tourism was recently voted down in the
National Land Use Council, thanks to the vote of environmental NGOs but also of
architects and land planners representatives (although it may still go through
the parliament). Is there a need for an absolute cap in the number of visitors
and a moratorium on the construction of new hotels in Zakynthos?
Yannis Vardakastanis: There is no need for more hotels,
and to reduce the number of visitors would ease immense pressure off the island.
So many hotels and people coming to visit over the years has turned the island
into a mess, and this now cheapens the island and makes for a less desirable
place for people to visit. I believe that less is more, and to offer higher
quality to fewer people is the direction in which we need to turn.
Many successful ecotour
operators around the world feel the need to set up an NGO, separating the
charitable arm and the business arm of their operation. On the other hand, there
is a new movement for environmental and social responsibility in tourism
companies. If the law was appropriate, would you consider merging your company &
NGO into one, and save overheads, or would you lose the support, public or
individual offered to NGOs?
Yannis Vardakastanis: I do believe that there is indeed
a movement towards environmental and social responsibility among tourism
companies. However, this highlights the urgency to implement an effective
screening system to ensure these companies are actually operating in an ethical
way. This would need to take precedence over laws to allow amalgamation of
business and NGO. I would consider it, but I feel the separation of the two
helps to maintain clarity.
There are reports that
the global economic crisis has already led to 20-30% drop in bookings for the
2009 season in Greek destinations. What are your expectations, and are
ecotourism operators better sheltered in your view?
Yannis Vardakastanis: The economic situation will affect
everybody, and all businesses. But we offer such a unique experience of
Zakynthos I believe this will help us to ‘weather the storm’.
Finally, what are your
Yannis Vardakastanis: We will continue our hard work to
protect Gerakas and the nesting beaches, whilst we also hope to grow our
business and spread the message by offering up other eco-friendly places to stay
throughout Greece and the Mediterranean.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much
& good luck in the Awards!
complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here