On the tiny Greek island of Santorini, a vividly painted village perches precariously at the very lip of a sheer, straight-shot drop of 1,000 feet to the sea below. While, to the cruise ships below, the village seems carefree, defiantly heedless of all notions of gravity, the cliff clinging Oia (pronounced "ee-a") is actually grappling with an avalanche of troubles caused by its postcard-perfect location and winning beauty.
That's where an experienced tourism "rapid response team" from the University of Cincinnati comes in. The team, led by Michael Romanos, professor of planning at UC's prestigious College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, has visited municipalities in Crete for four years now, providing on-the-spot aid to underprepared and overwhelmed locales unexpectedly caught in tourism's rising tide.
Five or 10 years ago, places like Santorini, an island 110 miles north of Crete, were backwaters. Now, they're tourist boomtowns struggling to cope with the environmental, economic and cultural backlash caused by a deluge of tourists. Just between 1990 and 2000, tourism in Crete jumped by about 50 percent, such that it [tourism] now accounts for about 30 percent of jobs in the region. More than a quarter of Greece's 10 million annual tourists head for Crete, and tourism now supports about 90 percent of the regional economy in parts of Crete that once relied heavily on agriculture.
The problems are intensified on Santorini. According to Romanos, "You have an island about eight miles long, with 12,000 year-round residents, that receives a huge number of tourists, up to three million of them a year. The carrying capacity of the island is just too small for so many. The beaches and pedestrian streets of the small towns and villages just cannot contain them, and everybody wants space and leaves waste – from cruise ships to the growing number of hotel developments. Transportation and parking and garbage management are nightmares…The infrastructure costs for sewage and imported food supplies are extraordinarily high for the island."
A native of Crete and an international expert on development in emerging economies, Romanos adds, "Once, Santorini was a small island with a small economy, locally famous for its fava legumes and wines. The men often became fishermen or were sailors in the Greek merchant marine. Now, the island actually has to import fava beans because of their popularity with tourists who want 'Santorini' fava legumes….A million visitors a year come to examine the ancient town of Acrotiri that is perfectly preserved under volcanic ash, spewed forth during a enormously destructive eruption…it's something like the Pompeii of Greece."
Large employers – like hotel chains owned by non-residents and cruise ships that dump waste in their wake – have brought enormous changes for the island's land- and seascape, as well as altering its culture and economy. Thus, local leaders invited the UC team to come this summer after seeing the work done by similar teams from the university in and around Hersonissos, Crete, for the last four years.
There, the UC team conceived of ideas for low-cost, environmentally friendly "tourist" activities that would spread the "tourist wealth" beyond the narrow strip of Crete's seacoast and beaches. Among the accomplishments of UC faculty and students in and around Hersonissos:
* UC students literally blazed a hiking trail between traditional interior villages.
* A traditional goat herding village was helped to stave population drain by taking advantage of dramatically rising meat consumption in Greece.
* In another village, a public square containing two 19th-century schools and a 14th-century Byzantine chapel is being renovated for use by visiting artists and for public events.
* A completely new circulation and transportation system is being implemented in the capital town of Hersonissos.
* A new sewer and water system is being built for two major villages in Crete's interior.
This summer's multidisciplinary team consists of nine students (six planners and three architects) and Romanos, along with:
* Carla Chifos, assistant professor of planning
* Frank Russell, director, UC's Community Design Center
* Menelaos Triantafillou, visiting associate professor of planning
* Frank Wray, associate professor of biology
Summer 2004 will mark the team's first stay in Santorini, during which they will focus on rapid assessment, evaluation and data collection regarding the island's problems and priorities. During the coming academic year, these faculty and other students will continue to examine the specific issues facing Santorini. Then, next summer, a larger planning and design team will travel to Santorini to work with residents and island administrators on furthering comprehensive sustainable-development plans.
UC's work on Santorini is funded by the island's municipality and by the university's Institute for Global Studies and Affairs.
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