Information about ecotourism in Greece
Notwithstanding its limited surface area, Greece is endowed with a particularly rich and diversified natural environment as a result of a rare geomorphology, with many striking natural contrasts and areas of great ecological value. The country’s abundant natural gifts –thousands of indented coasts, imposing rocky massifs, caves, gorges, lakes, rivers, biotopes of spectacular beauty and unique natural habitats– coupled with the mild climate place it among the ideal destinations for ecotourism and alternative forms of tourism in Greece.
When you travel to Greece, nature-loving tourists are offered the opportunity to:
- to wander in aesthetic forests or explore national parks not merely in the mountainous regions of the mainland, but also on certain islands or in the proximity of rivers and lakes
- to enjoy the wonderful natural monuments, gorges, caves and waterfalls.
- to watch and admire rare bird species nesting or seeking refuge in coastal ecosystems and wetlands (rocky coasts, sandy beaches, sand dunes, river deltas, lakes, marshes, coastal plains in Greece etc).
- to study the highly diverse floral life of the Greek countryside.
- to visit the unique marine parks supported near the islands of Alonissos and Zakynthos island, which provide shelter to two protected species, the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus-Monachus) and the Mediterranean green loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) respectively.
- to engage in extreme sports (canoe-kayak, rafting, monoraft, hydrospeed, canyoning, mountain biking, etc), activities which have seen a spectacular rise in popularity in recent years.
- to stay in agrotourist units in Greece which are being developed all over the country and afford visitors the opportunity to become familiar with vernacular architecture, cultural and gastronomic tradition, local Greek products, farming activities and the daily life of local inhabitants of Greece.
Visitors of ecologically sensitive Greek areas must observe all rules for the protection of the environment against pollution, the non-disturbance of natural habitats and the preservation of the various ecosystems’ equilibrium. Information on visiting protected areas of Greece and participating in special programs can be obtained from local information centers, local authorities and specialized travel agencies in Greece.
From the untamed mountains of Epiros – Greece and picturesque Macedonia Greece to the dramatic gorges of Crete island, Greece presents a wide spectrum of natural beauty and unusual animal life to the nature-seeking tourists.With its landscape on the mainland alternating with high mountains, valleys, lakes, broad deltas and coastal lagoons, its diversity in fauna and flora, and with its more than 2,000 islands, Greece is a bird-watcher’s paradise.
In the flat and semi-mountainous area important hydro-biospheres are developing a great international significance and acknowledgement. Hotspots for thousands of resident and migratory bird species, amphibian species, endemic populations of invertebrates and fish, buffalo, reptiles and a great variety of insects, the hydro-biospheres are pieces in a more complex mosaic that includes wetlands, dry meadows, hedges, small bush forests and rural landscape.
In recognition of the area’s significance, biological stations in Greece have been constructed and used by host students, scientists and visiting researchers as well as conferences and volunteer activities. Various programs are in place to finance the refurbishment of local traditional buildings serving for accommodations and meetings, mostly operated by women’s cooperatives. The basic infrastructure in place has given incentives to private entrepreneurs to provide food, accommodation and other services, and attract public investments oriented towards ecotourism in Greece. Following Greece’s accession in 1975 to the Ramsar treaty, preserving and protecting the wild has become a most popular item on the Greek government’s agenda.
The successful combination of tourism and conservation at the natural habitats in Greece serves as models for other important natural areas in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Arcturos Bear Sanctuary, Mount Nympeon Greece
The forests of the mountain ranges of northern Greece are home to Europe’s largest population of the protected brown bear. But the bears who have been given sanctuary by Arcturos are far from wild. Most are the infamous “dancing bears” abandoned or confiscated from gypsies when the practice was banned in 1969. They “danced” because they had their front feet burnt on hot coals as youngsters while their masters played the tambourine. Traumatized by the experience, they would instinctively dance whenever the familiar tune was heard.
Even if saved from this fate, however, they could never survive back in the wild. Many had their teeth broken to stop them biting their owners and were psychologically scarred by their experience in captivity. ( Hotels travel accommodation holidays vacation tourism hotel guide guides hotel )
“There was a law which outlawed dancing bears but no system for taking the bears off the gypsies and nowhere for them to go,” he recalls. Boutari had been looking for a project to breath life back into the virtually abandoned stone village (he has since been instrumental in its revival as a charming historic town).
In 1992, Arcturos was formed as a non-profit organization and the following year began programs to protect the brown bear, eventually attracting EU and private sector support, as well as funds from WWF. Today, Arcturos has a team of 16 staff, 40 associates and another 40 volunteers whose work entails protecting and managing the area’s natural environment and wildlife. They are also leading Balkan initiatives to monitor and protect the region’s bear population.
13 bears have found a home in the five-acre sanctuary, including an American black bear from a circus and three refugees from the Belgrade zoo brought in after the Yugoslavia wars.
In the nearby town of Aetos, there is a veterinary station and an innovative visitor center with excellent interactive displays and programs. Arcturos’ “sponsor a bear” program and educational programs have helped raise awareness of the problem and of environmental issues throughout Greece. Along with the sanctuary, the center attracts about 30-35,000 visitors per year.
Arcturos also works with farming organizations to offer local farmers and bee-keepers support and compensation for damage to their livelihoods by wild bears. Whereas in the past many of these bears were shot, now farmers contact the center, which helps provide electrified fencing, shepherd dogs or other means of protection.
In 1998, Arcturos began a similar program aimed at protecting the region’s wolves and has established a separate wolf sanctuary nearby.
Dadia Forest Wildlife Reserve – Greece
You can often see them from the lookout deep in the lush Dadia forest, near the Rodopi -Greece mountain range. Today there are 19 vultures feasting on carrion; 13 of them are the protected black vultures. Binoculars and a telescope are supplied and a park officer is on hand to keep visitors informed and in check—the birds may be hard of hearing but have eight times the strength of human eyesight and are sensitive to any movement in the forest.
In the 1980s, the black vulture was a threatened species in Europe. A Dutch ornithologist counted only 25 individuals, breeding in the Dadia forest, near the northern Greek city of Alexandroupoli.
After intense lobbying by international wildlife conservation groups, a 7,290-hectare section of the forest of mostly pine and oak was declared a protected zone in 1980 (along with another 27,000 hectare buffer zone) by the World Conservation Union and the WWF. Logging was banned, tourist activities curtailed, and infrastructure projects such as new roads were halted until an integrated management plan could be implemented.
In 1998, the inner zone of the Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli Forest was declared a wildlife reserve. Despite continuing negotiations over its status and management, it appears to be a commendable model for conservation and eco-tourism development.
At the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, Dadia is on one of the two main bird migration routes in Europe and has a unique mosaic of habitats. It has the most diverse range of predatory birds—including 36 of the 38 European species of diurnal birds, of which 20 nest there permanently. It is renowned as one of two remaining European feeding and breeding grounds (the other is in Spain) for rare raptors such as the black and griffin vultures. The forest provides the necessary tranquility for the vultures’ long reproduction period. Within the protected area there are 219 species of birds, 40 species of reptiles and amphibians and 48 species of mammals.
About 200 visitors per day pass through the Ecotourism center (run by the municipality and Greek WWF in Greece), which has informative bilingual displays and a video about the forest, the wildlife and the efforts to protect the environment.
Guides are available to take you up to the lookout in a mini-bus or an escorted walk along the clearly-defined trails.
A 20-room hostel was recently refurbished and expanded with EU funds and the cafe and bus service are run by the local authority.
May is the best time to visit, before birds begin their migration, though the best time for vultures is autumn, when the young are fresh out of their nests.
Although use of the forest is still a sensitive issue with locals from surrounding villages, many are involved in the Ecotourism ventures.
WWF has had a permanent presence in the forest since 1992, running programs to protect and monitor bird species, conserve raptor populations, raise public awareness and ensure a sustainable level of tourist activity
Great Lakes – Prespa in Greece
In 2001, the pioneering work to protect one of Europe’s most precious wetlands, the twin lakes of Prespa, in north-western Greece, won two Greek biologists the prestigious Goldman environmental prize.
Protected by more national, European and international laws than any site in Greece, Mikri Prespa, which falls almost entirely within Greek territory, is one of the most biologically rich and diverse regions in Europe. At an altitude of 850 meters, the lake is home to 260 bird species—including rare and threatened species—and the world’s largest colony of the endangered Dalmation pelican.
In 1974, Prespa was declared a National Park and wetland of international importance under the Ramsar convention, but by the 80s, intensive bean cultivation and use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides in the area had begun to undermine its intricate ecosystem.
An informal Friends of Prespa organization formed in 1987 eventually led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Prespa (SPP), now an effective umbrella organization coordinating efforts by locals, government, other NGOs and international wildlife protection organizations with a holistic approach to the area.
They have their work cut out for them, but the population of Dalmation pelicans has increased four-fold and is no longer threatened by extinction. Locals are also playing a key role in the development of the area, through sustainable agriculture, responsible fishing and modest eco-tourism activity.
Work is also progressing on the landmark proposal for a tri-national Prespa Park, which spans 55,830 acres, and covers parts of F Y R O M and Albania.
Laganas Bay, in Zakynthos. Greece’s First Marine Park
The clear, warm, shallow waters of Laganas Bay, on the island of Zakynthos , make it one of the most fascinating places to swim in all of Greece. It is among the only remaining habitats of the endangered loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta, and late spring provides a rare opportunity to see hundreds of the animals mating in the warm waters.
In summer, 1,200-2,000 turtles crawl out of the sea to lay their eggs on the soft sand beaches. Sea turtles nest where they were hatched and the Caretta caretta have been returning to Laganas Bay for more than 10,000 years.
Scientists consider Zakynthos island the most important endangered turtle habitat in Europe and among the most important in the world. In 2000, Greece created its first ever managed national wildlife park at the center of that habitat, 135 square kilometers in and around Laganas Bay in Zakynthos.
The park came out of a 1992 European Commission (EC) directive decreeing that Greece must conserve the Zakynthos nesting grounds. On paper, Laganas Bay, along with a handful of other sites around Greece, was already protected. But in practice, that meant next to nothing. National parks existed, but no one managed them. There was no staff, no budget, no legislation and, in many cases, no mapped boundaries of protected areas, explains Theodota Nantsou of WWF Greece.
Nowhere was that problem more evident than Laganas Bay. In the early 80s, scientists started going there to study the Caretta caretta. At about the same time, the tourist industry discovered the island. By the 1992 decree, much of the so-called protected area had exploded into a beachfront strip of bars, restaurants, hotels, apartments,villas, rooms, where British package holidays tourists continue to descend en masse.
The EC directive eventually forced Greece to put legislation into action on Zakynthos, and European Union funding ensured that it happened. In 2001, close to e290 million from the EU and around e118 million from the Greek government funded a full-time staff and management program for the new park.
Setting up the first managed national park in Greece was a challenge, and Laganas was rife with complications that would have stumped the most experienced ecologists and legislators.
“Zakynthos island is a very special case,” says Christos Chrisomalis, an environment ministry advisor who helped set up the park. “These are very specific animals, and there weren’t other examples of the best way to protect them. As a marine park, we had to manage both land and sea. That meant more habitats, more species that need protection. Also, most wildlife areas are uninhabited, but this area is thickly populated, with a large local community heavily invested in tourism.”
Protecting turtles from the intense tourism development and trying to develop a working relationship with the local community proved tough assignments, says the park’s director, Kostas Katselidis.
Last summer, the staff, plus a crew of 38 volunteers, patrolled the turtle-nesting beaches day and night, counting turtle nests, giving out information to tourists, and keeping people away from the most important nesting areas. They stopped hotels,apartments,rooms,villas and tourists from using beach umbrellas (the poles can plunge into buried nests), prevented access to some beaches at night, and patrolled beachfront bars, restaurants and hotels, making sure they kept the music and lights low.
Many beachfront business owners protest that the park affects their livelihoods. Katselidis says the park is now working with locals, giving talks and slideshows on activities throughout the area and developing eco-tourism enterprises, aimed at bringing in turtle-watchers with minimal environmental impact. The government also expects to prepare compensation offers within the next year.
The Evros Delta in Greece
The Greek Delta of Evros is unlike any of Greece’s protected wetlands or national parks. Strategically situated on the north-eastern Greece -Turkish border, entry is via a military checkpoint and only with an official guide from the Evros visitor center in nearby Feres. Military lookouts line both banks of the river and you can see the Turkish rice fields and villages across the way. Even the river’s water level is kept constant to prevent border disputes.
Such restricted access has had both positive and negative results for local bird, flora and fauna populations and created a unique atmosphere and landscape.Covering an expanse of 188 square kilometers, the Greek Delta of Evros offers a diversity of habitats including coastal lakes, lagoons, interior rivers, sandy islets, sand dunes, marshes, swamps and reedbeds. More than 330 bird varieties can be found in this bird-watcher’s paradise—a trained eye can spot about 100 on an average day. During the winter, hundreds of thousands of water fowl from northern Europe and the former Soviet republics find shelter in the Delta.There is also controlled grazing and agricultural activity as well as commercial fishing and hunting. Cows wander through the tamarisk forest, an important habitat for about 80 mammals, while wild horses gather past the plains.The area had been eroded by agricultural use until it was declared a Ramsar-protected wetland in 1974. While conservation groups are actively involved in its protection at a macro level, they have no formal presence on the ground.A new tourist center, cafe and shelter has opened this year, but tourism is kept in check because of the environmental and military sensitivity of the area.
Wild Life Rescue Services – Aegina Greece
Twenty years ago, an agriculturalist named Giannis Poutopoulos, concerned about the many injured birds he found in the wild, started bringing them to his Thessalonica apartment to care for them. His bird-filled apartment quickly got out of hand, and his friend Philip Dragoumis offered to help with space at his home in Aegina.
Dragoumis’ home soon filled up, too. “We had lots of problems with the neighbors,” he laughs. By then the effort to care for and release injured animals back into the wild had grown to a handful of people, who over the years found larger spaces, more volunteers, and even some money.
In 1990 they found a permanent, if not ideal, hospital space: an old jail on Aegina. Government funding followed. Then in 2001, the Hellenic Wildlife Hospital (EKPAZ) took its biggest step ever: a 880,000-EU grant allowed the center to move to a 20,000–square–meter outdoor space where it now takes in over 4.000 birds per year, along with other animals, caring for them with a full veterinarian’s clinic and large, landscaped pens.
“It started out as just a bunch of birds in someone’s apartment. Now, through their enthusiasm and work, they’ve turned it into a professional NGO, the biggest and best wildlife hospital in Greece,” says Martin Gaethlic, an environment ministry advisor. “Small groups, working on a grassroots, community level can really make a difference, and EKPAZ has been a great example of that.”
Today, spacious mesh-covered pens are filled with endangered eagles, peregrine falcons, pink flamingos and bright-colored pheasants (all kept separately), recovering from gunshot wounds, abuse in zoos, and poisoning. A dozen Great Horned owls roost in one pen, while in another sit two Bonelis eagles, the second most endangered bird in Europe. Both were blinded by gunshots and cannot fly.
In a pen for waterfowl, herons step delicately around a pool of water.
“Almost every species of bird that lives in Greece has been here along with many that don’t live in Greece,” says hospital worker Costas Ioanou.
Though the hospital’s purpose is to treat all injured wildlife, birds have always made up the majority of animals sent there. It has treated more than 25,000 birds since it was founded. Of those, most were shot by hunters, though many were poisoned by eating pesticide-sprayed plants, says Ioannou.
Volunteers and E K P A Z contacts all over Greece find and transport the birds to Aegina – Greece. The animals travel for free, through an arrangement with ferries and forest police.
Injured birds stay in intensive care for around a month, many next to heat lamps. Some need to be handfed, which presents an additional challenge: “We have to be careful that they don’t see our faces, that they don’t get to know us and become friendly. We don’t want them to become too domesticated to release into the wild later,” explains worker Elena Fountouki.
Once wounds are healed, birds are released into pens with like species, and those that fully heal are released after the hunting season. About half can never be released though, says Ioannou, either because they are so injured they’ll never fly or see properly, or because, especially in the case of zoo animals, they are too domesticated.