UC in Crete: Keeping an Island from Being Loved to Death

For a third summer, a University of Cincinnati research team is getting down to business on the Mediterranean island of Crete, all in an effort to save the vacation hot spot from the traps of tourism.

 The UC-Crete connection has been a long-term one, stretching back to 1999 when university researchers first mobilized to help preserve a threatened environment and culture from the millions of tourists who annually flock to this beach-and-mountain paradise.  University planners, architects, biologists and others returned in 2000 when they made concrete proposals to stem choking traffic congestion, pollution that is rapidly degrading coastal areas, shortages of potable water, loss of economic and environmental diversity, and dilution of native traditions and cultures – all while preserving the business boost that tourism brings.

On June 12, the third team from UC sets off for a summer of labor.  UC Planning Professor Michael Romanos, a native of Crete with a long international resume, founded this partnership as a way to help his home, help students and faculty learn, and help make an international “town/gown” model.  He can list examples of the problems in Crete rapid fire, “Motorbikes menace migratory birds.  Minoan archaeological sites [Minoan culture peaked at about 1500 BC] go unprotected.  Byzantine buildings and agricultural land are threatened by new development.  Pollution and trash pile up.  Residents go without fresh water because of the development demands for tourism along the coast.  City streets are gridlocked.”

Illegal moto-cross training field

Illegal moto-cross training field

The list could go on.  That’s why Romanos and his team aim to trim that list.  “First, we came up with concepts in 1999.  In 2000, we did detailed studies at the invitation of the municipal government of Hersonissos, a coastal town near the capital.  Our efforts focused on diversifying the small-business economy so that it’s less tourism-dependent, protecting fragile ecosystems, combating congestion, transforming tourism and increasing citizen participation,” added Romanos.

From June 12 to August 10, 2003, a group of 20 students and three faculty will help the municipality move ahead on four specific proposals:

One of the abandoned schools at Avdou

One of the abandoned schools at Avdou

  • Two abandoned 19th-century schools and a 14th-century Byzantine chapel in the interior village of Avdou are being restored for use and integration as space for open-air festivals, cultural events and as space for visiting artists.  The idea here is to help move tourism away from a coastal concentration and diffuse it throughout the 150-mile island where many interior villages are being abandoned by the younger generations who seek the jobs generated along the tourist-rich coast, thus endangering traditional village life.  In addition, by diversifying tourist enticements beyond the traditional sun, sex and sand, the UC team hopes to attract environmentally sensitive and economically prosperous visitors.

  • Built on Roman and Byzantine ruins, the city of Hersonissos has only 5,000 residents but 55,000 tourist beds.  And when the tourists pour in, traffic flow stops.  In part, that’s due to the tourist influx.  However, streets also stop mid-way because of archaeological ruins.  As a remedy, the UC team proposes a pedestrian city center to encourage leisurely visits to archaeological sites.  Traffic might be limited to certain hours, limited to certain streets, with parking provided at the edge of town.  The team also suggests the construction of a Hersonissos bypass.

threatened Sfendyli

threatened Sfendyli

  • Continue researching the social, environmental and economic ramifications of a proposed interior dam meant to provide water to the coast.  That proposed dam, located in the Aposelemis Valley, would destroy 50 percent of the valley’s agriculture, a rare native stand of trees and more.  It would also destroy a traditional way of life in the village of Sfendyli.

  • Continue research on a heritage corridor that identifies and designates historically significant points of interest for preservation as well as natural areas to be preserved.  Within the corridor, land would be protected from erosion, water from pollution and archaeological sites from thieves.

Liz Wolfe, a former student, examines invading plants that threaten a wetlands.

Liz Wolfe, a former student, examines invading plants that threaten a wetlands.

One student, Pam McMillan, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, was part of the

Crete 2000 team

.  She’ll also be part of the Crete 2003 team.  “I want to return because I saw the project proposals start out.  I’d like to see them continue.  As a planner, you don’t always see the outcome.  It’s an incredible feeling to see something to completion,” she said.

Fellow student Alexandra Vamvakidou, a native of Athens, is in her first year as a planning graduate student at UC.  She joined the Crete 2003 team because she knows how much Greek municipalities need planning help.  “The communities want to have a voice to make proposals to meet their needs.  They don’t have that right now, and they want it.  The towns are going begging for help,” she said.

Other UC faculty accompanying Romanos this summer are Carla Chifos, assistant professor of planning, and Menelaos Triantafillou, visiting associate professor of planning.  To read more on UC’s past efforts in Crete, go to http://www.uc.edu/info-services/credef.htm or http://abcnews.go.com/sections/travel/DailyNews/crete000815.html.

Facts on Crete

  • Tourism supports about 90 percent of the regional economy around Hersonissos, an area that once relied on agriculture.

Agriculture is a threatened way of life on Crete.

Agriculture is a threatened way of life on Crete.


  • Tourism in Crete jumped about 50 percent between 1990 and the year 2000.

  • Tourism amounts to more than 30 percent of jobs on Crete since, directly or indirectly, many jobs rely on tourism.

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