By Mauro Randone, WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative
“We don’t sell our houses here!”, said Antonis, the manager of the Samaria Gorge National Park in Crete, while he was proudly showing me the beauties of his hometown Chania and the house he was renting to a friend. I remarked that while now in winter we were almost alone in admiring Chania’s magnificent Venetian Harbor, wonderful beaches and stunning natural gorges, during the summer finding a good buyer among the 4 million tourists that flood the coasts of Crete would not be a problem. Yet Antonis explained to me that the house was the only remaining connection his son would have with this territory, and no money could buy it!
Such a strong attachment to our roots is not uncommon in the Mediterranean, and my Sicilian origin knows it well, but it is amazing to see how some local traditions “resist” the pressures of the modern world. Crete is still a place where you can’t find eggs in the markets, because every family has its own chickens in the backyard — and this despite decades of tourism that has brought wealth to some parts of the population, yet has also impacted local communities and nature with water and electricity shortages and excessive waste.
As the manager of Crete’s most important national park, which is home to the rare kri-kri (Cretan goat), the monk seal, the golden eagle and plenty of plant species, Antonis wants to promote a new model of ecotourism that has nature and local people at its heart.
He took me away from the usual tourist paths to meet with local residents who warmly greeted us while chopping wood or fixing engines in preparation for the summer season. The owners of a guesthouse received us with the smell of a delicious stew that had been simmering in the kitchen for the whole morning, locally produced goat cheese and chips perfectly fried in the traditional and locally produced olive oil.
This combination of nature, culture and food is unique to the Mediterranean. That’s why WWF, partner organizations and protected areas of the EU project DestiMED, are together developing ecotourism packages for the international market. The Mediterranean has the potential to become a world leader in sustainable tourism enriched by people like Antonis who will greet you with a glass of the best Cretan wine and inspiring stories from Chania.
By Mauro Randone of WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, partner of the EU-funded project DestiMED to promote ecotourism in the region: https://destimed.interreg-med.eu