Thursday, 16 August 2018

Off-season tourism

"Tourism is like a kitchen: you can cook in it, but it can also burn your house down."

A Dutch friend recently said this to me. His wife is from Bali, Indonesia, and they have both seen what happened to the area after it was bombarded for the last two decades with a lot of tourism. We are now seeing the effects of overtourism in Greece too, and they make for grim reading: environmental pollution, overuse of resources, together with overcrowding, are endangering both nature and people. Lo-cost airlines and accommodation services like airbnb are making it very easy for people to decide to travel, but this has had the nasty side-effect of locals being unable to find reasonable accommodation at a price they can afford: it's all too tempting for landlords to keep homes empty while they wait for tourists' big bucks. Overtourism is now a very hot topic, being discussed alongside climate change and the greenhouse effect. It is literally a problem in all the world's hotspots. So what's the alternative? Is all-year-round tourism a better option? Will that make some places crowded all year round? Or will it relieve the summer burden for those who wish to take a quieter holiday in a popular place? One can only try things out to see what will happen.

Santorini at the edge: overtourism on the island

While in London three years ago, we found ourselves at a loose end on New Year's Day, so our hosts offered to take us on a trip to the English countryside. "It'll be muddy, slushy and damp," we were warned. We had to decline, as none of us had appropriate footwear. As they set off to enjoy the damp, I had to quickly come up with another idea for ourselves to spend the holiday in an entertaining way. I suggested we go to Brighton. "Brighton in the winter?" my host said, laughing. "What do you want to do by the English coast  in the freezing cold?" Nothing in particular, I thought. I just wanted to see B town (as the locals call it).

Brighton shares a few similarities with Hania. It's a coastal summer resort town, as well as a university town, which means that it has a large moving/changing population all year round. Brighton is popular for its 'Lanes', which I later realised bore great similarity to our old Venetian walled town, where the buildings are situated on narrow roads that are now used as tourist businesses (shops, cafes and restaurants). I found it to be a compact, trendy, self-confident and perhaps rather smug town, just like Hania, with good entertainment amenities. Both towns offer permanent attractions that are open year-round (eg museums, souvenir shops, etc); it's only really the marine-related activities that aren't available in the winter (eg water sports facilities). And both towns suffer from the rose-tinted views of outsiders who wish to move there: they have a fantasy view of a well-liked town. But is it like that all the time?

But the two towns differ in some major ways. Brighton is a large town, mainly urban in nature, while Hania is much smaller with a small urban part compared to its rural 'sprawl'; this influences the infrastructure and entertainment facilities in each town. Brighton is also located close to the UK capital whereas Hania is an overnight ferry boat trip (subject to weather conditions in winter), or a one-hour (expensive) flight from Athens. The two biggest issues involved in island winter tourism are flight availability and weather conditions. Once the summer charter flight season stops, getting to Crete involves a bit of a trek. This can double the time it takes to get to the island, as foreign tourists would have to fly in via Athens. Hania doesn't suffer from a lack of domestic tourists, but these people are also more likely to come and visit relatives on the island, so they aren't really tourists per se. The main visitors to Hania in the off-season are school students on educational tours.

A pilot plan is supposedly starting in Greece this year that will extend the tourist season in Crete and Rhodes. Crete is located in the southernmost region of Greece so the weather is usually warmer than the rest of the country, but it's rather variable between October and March. At the end of the tourist season, the Cretan summer resort areas simply close down and don't re-open until March the following year. But the main town centre operates all year round; some shops have begun to diversify, adding non-tourist items to their stock, while other stores specifically open for domestic tourists (mainly school groups) and when a military ship is docked in the commercial port of nearby Souda Bay (an American military base is located in Hania).

The long train ride from London gave us a glimpse into the English countryside: squared green fields, more linear green fields, some forested areas, and a few dog walkers. There were very few people and houses on this route, with the overbearing wintry silence interrupted briefly by the industrial lights of Gatwick airport. Brighton was very cold on the day of our visit. Leaving the busy train station, we walked along a rather nondescript commercial road from the train station leading towards the touristy part of the town. Not all the businesses on this road were open, although I was surprised to see a supermarket operating.(I mean, it was New Year's Day, who needs to go food shopping then? And it's also very unfair on the staff - weren't they celebrating the night before?) Sunday/holiday trading is still being bitterly contested in Greece, but people in large cities, particularly Athens, generally like the idea of having open stores on Sundays because it's a reason to go into town. (In Hania, store owners hate Sunday trading, and most keep their shops shut.)

The cold English weather didn't stop people leaving the warmth of their homes to get blown about by the wind. The Brighton coastline was relatively busy: people were walking dogs, pushing prams with young children, or just strolling about, all well wrapped up against the cold air which tore right through us. The countryside is a place to be indoors in bad weather, but urban areas always have indoor activities taking place for all ages.

The main attraction for first-time visitors to Brighton is the pier which houses a permanent funfair on the site. It was quite full of family-oriented people on New Year's Day. I managed to get as far as the entrance to the pier but I couldn't get myself past the gambling machines (the rest of the family went about halfway through). One-armed bandits and other 'lucky' games under the general umbrella term of gambling are strictly regulated in Greece, and there is no such open space where this kind of entertainment can take place here. (This indulgence in lucky games is usually confined to adults, so for people like myself who don't see their entertainment value, it was rather off-putting to see young children using the slot machines.)

We had decided to have a good English meal of fish and chips while we were in Brighton. But how do you choose the 'best' place to have a meal in an unfamiliar area? There was a fish and chip shop located below the road, facing the beach, and it smelt 'clean'; in other words, the smell of the fried oil didn't have that over-used rancid smell (I know the difference well, given my experience with extra-virgin olive oil). We made a note of the place to take our lunch there once we had visited the area. We wanted to continue our stroll along the beach. It was almost two o'clock by the time we finished our stroll, and the weather had made us very hungry. Having lived for so long in Greece, I had almost forgotten what British lunch time means: it starts at about midday and is over by half past one. Two o'clock is pushing it. What ensued was an eye opener for all of us.

On entering the restaurant, I felt as though I had journeyed trough a time warp. Despite having visited London so many times, we'd never come across such a quaint, or should I say antiquated 70s style eaterie. There was nothing chic or sleek in this place. It did not remind me of the logo-ed, branded, plush looks and modern lines - and high prices, ultimately - of London's eateries. This place was still using vinyl tablecloth covers; what a breath of alternative air in contrast to London! I knew we would find good food in a place that looks like this: the best Greek tavernas are the ones that look like a mother/grandmother runs them - old, tired, well-used, rarely renovated. They are most likely to serve home-cooked food, all prepared the day it was served, and there won't be many items on the menu, as we confirmed about this place, when the somewhat tired-looking menu books were 'thrown' at us. The menu could be said to be thrifty - half a dozen mains, some drinks and a few snacks. In other words, a high turnover of the same items, making it more likely that everything would be relatively fresh. My eyes ran down the price list - this place was cheap, and the aromas of the food were tempting.

The people working in the shop were real characters, nothing like the faceless feckless long-aproned low-paid lads and lasses in the plush cafes. A somewhat old-looking man who smiled a lot was moving about slowly as he got through his chores in the restaurant which felt more like a sit-down snack shop. He reminded me of my father who walked and worked in the same way, in our fish and chip shop in NZ. At one point, he went outdoors and sat on a chair by an outside table, and lit up a cigarette. This was my family's first introduction to the concept of respecting the contentious global smoking ban at indoor places. Young Greek workers would do the same thing as this old man, but I doubt that older Greek men would.

The other two workers were a middle-aged man who was standing over the deep frying vats, cooking fish fillets and chips, and a middle-aged woman with striking straight long blonde hair. When she came to take our orders, I told her we weren't ready yet, which was a bit embarrassing since there were very few items listed on it! I was still in the process of explaining it to my family. I noticed her agitation, and told my clan to make up their minds quickly. During this time, more customers were entering the shop... but they were all being turned away, which explains the shop assistant's agitation - it turned out that we were the very last customers. I'm so glad we weren't turned away too! This was another surprise for my husband, who can't imagine a Greek turning away any willing customer; when it's closing time in Britain, they mean it! (This has happened to us before in London - we still can't get used to being 'on time' to eat.)

But when the time came to take our orders, the waitress was ever so helpful, telling us about the size of the servings, the way the fish is caught, everything being freshly cooked, and so on. In fact, we had a really good discussion about the business of fish and chips, because I was actively involved in my parents' business. Working in a fish and chip shop is smelly greasy hot work. We compared notes while my very Greek family listened and tried to understand what we were talking about. It was so kind of her to take the time to talk to us about her line of work, especially given that it was really the end of the day for her, and she was probably looking forward to going home for a rest.

While our lunch was being cooked, we took in the atmosphere, including the banter taking place among the workers. They all took on various chores concerning the cleaning up before they shut the shop. We had a fantastic view of the sea: the waves were quite frothy, the wind was had picked up, and people were looking for refuge. After we finished our meal (and what a great meal that was), we visited the Lanes area: there was hardly anyone around at the time (late afternoon), which felt nice because we had the 'space' to browse and shop.

And that's the trouble with overtourism: too many people in one place = loss of time and space, not to mention the safety aspect of having too many people in one area: just how many more people are too many people? Maybe climate change will be the answer to this urgent problem: soon, it will be warm enough to go anywhere at any time, and there will no longer be 'summer' holidays - it will just be 'time for a break' (fully-airconditioned).

On a brighter note, we have to remember that, despite wars and natural disasters, there are some places on earth which have been inhabited without interruption over the last 6-7 millenia, one of those places being Hania. Instead of looking at the 'forecasts' of overpopulated places, maybe now is the right time to look back to the local knowledge people from older times used in order to allow them to continue to live in a place whose natural environment suffered some kind of degradation:
"IK [indigenous knowledge] is now being admitted as a form of rational and accepted knowledge developed through generations of intimate contact by native peoples with their lands, having equal status with scientific knowledge. While indigenous peoples have sometimes caused extinctions and degraded environments, they have often persisted for ages in their territories by using detailed adaptive knowledge." (another quote from my Dutch friends)
All is not lost: it just needs to be monitored properly.

Amusing stories about Brighton:
Amusing stories about Hania (in Greek):
For amusing stories about Hania in English, just read my blog: I write plenty of them. 

UPDATE 18/8/2018: A nasty case of "Wish you weren't here?" Or maybe just a case of "Sorry, we can't cope"?
Imagine living in a place where the population doubles, triples, quadruples in the high summer season. When you go to a top-rated restaurant, you dont expect to be told by the restauranter to order a maximum of 4 dishes (there were 6 guests), and when you ask to order more the last thing you'd expect the restauranter to tell you is that "this is not a supermarket" and "you can't order what you want when you want". But maybe you should expect to be treated like this in August by such a restauranter because there will be a lot of people wanting to go to the same place you want to go, and it's only to be expected that the restaurant staff (same ones all year round, no extra hirings, no more than you would find in winter when there are hardly any tourists) will not be able to cope with being inundated with customers who they want to please with a small range of dishes that will not be enough to go round, nor can they be made again on the same day because everything is freshly cooked and slow cooked (and there arent enough staff to do this anyway). Such places in summer are best left for the tourists because as a local, you will be disappointed So it's best to wait until that high tourist season ends when, as a local, you will get back your local haunts, and you will have allowed visitors to enjoy a momental glimpse into your corber f the world, which they will only have for a short period, while you will have it for a much longer (and less hot, and quiter) period. #overtourism

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