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Yannis Vardakastanis:"There is no need for more hotels (in Zakynthos) and to reduce the number of visitors would ease immense pressure off the island...There are too many tourists, turtle chasing activities, excessive light pollution, human waste and rubbish, all impacting greatly on our fragile eco-system"

The ECOCLUB Interview with Yannis Vardakastanis
Ionian Eco Villagers & Earth, Sea & Sky
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Yannis VardakastanisWhen 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: www.earthseasky.org ) 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:)

ECOCLUB.com:  You are a finalist at one of the most prestigious competitions, the 2009 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards.
Please 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

ECOCLUB.com: 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 challenge.

ECOCLUB.com: 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 improve on?

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.
 
ECOCLUB.com: 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.

ECOCLUB.com: 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 or small.
 
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.

ECOCLUB.com: 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.

ECOCLUB.com: 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.

ECOCLUB.com: 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’.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what are your future goals?

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!

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