Balancing Tradition and Mass Tourism on Astypalea

Astypalea's inhabitants are divided over ambitious plans for a 2,000-hectare tourist development on the island, amid a surge in construction activity.


One after another, islands that until today were considered alternative or generally far off the beaten track are changing in appearance. Astypalea is now heading in this direction, with plans to build a new village of tourist residences the size of the island’s capital, Hora. At the same time, the number of applications for building permits has doubled in the past year and a half, almost all of them for tourist accommodation and apartments, and the island’s ring road is already witnessing a surge in construction activity.

According to the mayor of Astypalea, Nikos Komineas, a major hotel group began exploratory contacts on the island about a year ago, with the aim of making a major tourism investment. According to Kathimerini, this proposal has now been submitted to the authorities for approval. It was submitted by an Athens-based real estate development company and covers an area of about 2,000 hectares at Agrilidi, an area similar in size to that of the island’s capital. The proposal is for the development of a tourist complex with villas for sale or rent, with a building area of 25,000-30,000 square meters. The vehicle for zoning and urban planning will be yet another special urban plan (that is, an urban plan exclusive to the area of the investment), which will modify the land use and allow for the construction of a settlement in the off-plan area.

“I think there is considerable interest in investing on the island,” Komineas says. “It’s certainly something to watch because of the pressure that seems to be coming. When I was approached by the hotel group, I told them that we don’t want to create units indiscriminately in off-plan areas, pointing to settlements that still have a lot of room for development, such as Hora, Livadi, Analipsi (Maltezana), Exo Vathi and Mesa Vathi. In addition, there should be a dispersion of buildings and the [style of the] local architecture should be followed to match the character of the island. If at some point the settlements become saturated, it is preferable to create a new settlement rather than scattering buildings in the countryside.”

At the same time, construction on the island has increased dramatically in the last two years. Where building permits did not exceed 15 per year (for example, 13 permits in 2020, including additions and renovations), they exceeded 30 in 2023: almost all of them concern complexes of 2-3 buildings for rent (rooms, apartments or houses). Since the beginning of 2023, seven permits, nine pre-approvals of building permits and another 25 land use or building condition certificates have been issued.

Need for protection

In what environment is all this taking place? Astypalea does not have an urban plan; the preparation for that is expected to start now. However, it belongs to the group of 25 small islands that were declared “areas in need of special protection” by a presidential decree of the then Ministry of the Aegean in 2002. On these islands, the construction of tourism facilities is not allowed to exceed 1,500 square meters per plot, or 200 square meters per plot for “self-catering apartments” and furnished rooms. As a result of this legislation, there are no large hotel units on these islands. In addition, Astypalaia is an island with significant forest areas. According to the Hellenic Land Registry, of the 110,422 hectares covered by the forest map of the island, 49.54% is forestland, 38.84% is grassland and only 11.62% comprises other types of land.

Recently, news of the tourism investment has started to circulate on the island, and opinions on the matter are divided. “The figures I hear are difficult to work with,” says Komineas, himself an engineer. “There is not much agricultural land or grassland in Agrilidi – most of it is forested. In addition, a lot of land belongs to the Ecclesiastical Charity Fund of Astypalea, a legal entity whose management is made up of five residents of the island, as well as the current metropolitan and mayor. At the moment we do not have any interest in the acquisition of land.”

Maria Lekakou, professor of maritime economics at the University of the Aegean, has been working on Astypalaia for a long time, as part of the extensive consultation with the local community on the implementation of the “Smart and Sustainable Island” project (based on the introduction of e-mobility, in collaboration with a major car manufacturer). “I have been a lover of Astypalea since my student days, since… before Christ, as I tell my students, because of my friendship with the daughter of the owner of the first campsite on the island. Many people came to the island as students in the 1980s, and have returned, bought a house or come back regularly. Since then, Astypalea has changed, but fortunately it has not become a caricature like other islands. But there is a clear divide in the local community, between the residents of Kastro, who want the island to remain as it is, and the average resident, who wants tourism to be boosted and the land to become more valuable. Tourism on the island is still controlled, with small units, with few rooms and a human scale.”

 

When asked about the planned investment, Lekakou is not negative. “I’m not an expert on tourism, but it sounds like a new community is being created in a part of the island, which is not necessarily negative if it is done in moderation and respects the space.”

Change for the worse?

“Everything is changing very quickly for the worse,” says Maria Mavroudi, a businesswoman on the island. “I love my island. I got into tourism as an economist, and I think the best thing to do is to stay on the traditional course and sell the traditional Greek experience at a higher price. At a time when others are becoming an artificial, touristic backdrop, we should maintain a pristine place without tourist alienation, which combines elements of tradition with the present. We are at a turning point. We have had a boom with the e-mobility program, which today is far from sustainable. We have bought electric vehicles and we charge them with the diesel engines of the [Public Power Corporation], because there are no renewable energy sources. So, on the one hand we have a nice narrative – which, if it were completely valid, I would agree with – and, on the other, we have the locals, who used to have a high season of 30 days in the summer and have doubled it, sweetened by money, and do not have the maturity to understand that this is all opportunistic. The main debate on the island today is whether to allow restaurants and bars in Hora – if it too is alienated, we are lost. There are at least 15 developments under way along the ring road. I am concerned because Astypalea has always attracted quality people and at the moment there is a tendency to just increase the number of overnight stays.”

“I think the island is changing for the better. Of course our main problem remains transportation,” says Froso Charalampi, a businesswoman. “It’s true that there is a lot of construction going on, most of it by locals who want to build tourist accommodations. They believe that the island is on the up and that there is potential. The whole mountain up to Hora is now sold. As for the rumored investment, it doesn’t sound good to me personally. Such a sudden development is not good for any place. The advantage of Astypalea is that on the one hand the island remains picturesque and, on the other, we are not going to ‘devour’ the visitor. In this sense, our first concern should be to protect our landscape. If this crippled state wants to help us, it should improve transportation.”

 

This article was previously published in Greek at kathimerini.gr



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