Anyone who hits the beach in Greece these days will have great difficulty finding a spot on the sand to spread out a towel or unroll a beach mat. The uncontrolled spread of sun lounger rentals means that empty space on Greek beaches is now rare.
On beaches up and down the country, row upon row of identical sun loungers and beach umbrellas block the view of the sea. They have been put there by entrepreneurs, hoteliers and beach bar/café owners who sometimes charge extortionate rates for their rental. A luxury lounger on the island of Paros in the Cyclades can cost up to €120 ($131) per day.
But it’s not just a problem of a lack of space: In some tourist regions in Greece, people who don’t want to pay the high rental prices for sun loungers — or cannot afford to do so — are not allowed onto the beaches at all.
On Paros, the locals have had enough and have started to fight back. They are determined to “reclaim the beach.” A grass-roots movement known unofficially as the “towel movement” is protesting the illegal privatization of beaches on Paros and other Greek islands.
Defending people’s right to beach access
“We defend the right of the citizens and visitors of our island to have free access to the beaches we love,” the Paros Citizens’ Movement for Free Beaches wrote on its Facebook page. “The Greek summer is part of our soul, it is part of our identity: let’s not let anyone take it away from us!”
There has been a wave of solidarity on social media, with messages of support and advice flooding in from all over the country.
No room at the beach
Greek media have dubbed the protest “the beach towel revolt,” but Konstantinos Bizas, prefect of Paros and the neighboring island of Antiparos, doesn’t like this phrase and prefers to refer to the initiative by its chosen name, the Paros Citizens’ Movement for Free Beaches. After all, that is exactly what the movement is about: Keeping the island’s beaches open to the public.
“By law, only 50% of space on a beach can be leased out for private operation; the remaining 50% must remain free and open. In the case of a nature conservation area, only 30% can be leased out,” he told DW.
Popular Greek island
Paros is the third-largest island in the Cyclades and is situated right next to the larger island of Naxos. It has a population of 14,000 and has over 700 tourist operations offering 25,000 beds. A further 10,000 beds are available via Airbnb.)
According to official statistics, some 750,000 tourists visited the island last year, attracted by its numerous beautiful beaches, of which 10 are particularly popular. Bars, cafes and restaurants have been opened on these beaches and have gradually expanded and spread, leaving no free space on the sand.
Shoreline law is not being enforced
Retired teacher Christos Georgousis is one of the founders of the initiative, which works together with the Archilochos Cultural Association to protect the beaches and ensure free access to the sea. He says that the situation on the popular holiday island has gotten completely out of control. For two years now, he adds, no one has monitored whether regulations are being complied with.
Georgousis decided that the time had come to act and in early June invited representatives of the local authorities and the opposition in the local council to a meeting to discuss possible solutions. About 200 people attended.
Locals protest illegal privatization
At the end of July, the first two demonstrations took place on beaches on the island. Some 300 and 400 people respectively took part, with several holding up large “reclaim the beach” banners. Locals were joined by foreigners who either live on the island or visit it regularly. The protests have since spread to the islands of Naxos and Serifos.
“The citizens’ movement is not targeting tourists or entrepreneurs,” film director Panos Kekas told DW. All the activists want, he stressed, is that the law of the land is respected, namely that half of all beaches remain free of umbrellas and sun loungers so that locals and tourists alike can enjoy the sea and nature.
Checks are not being carried out
The people who are active in the grass-roots movement come from all parties, walks of life and age groups, says secondary school teacher and activist Tasos Kasapidis. “Members of the movement posted data from the authorities on the internet and found out that only 7,500 square meters [80,700 square foot] of beach on Paros were leased out to businesspeople, but that they have occupied a total of 18,500 square meters.”
This creeping privatization of Greece’s beaches is a problem not only on Paros but across the country. All over, hotels and strand bars are not restricting themselves to the areas they are leasing but have expanded illegally. They have been able to do so because the authorities are not carrying out the stipulated checks.
According to Greek law, beaches are public property and can only be rented out by local or other competent authorities in very specific circumstances. But the authorities don’t always carry out the requisite inspections — whether it be because they don’t want to lose support or whether certain entrepreneurs are related to or friends with local politicians. Whatever the reason, the upshot is that a small group of people are making a profit at the expense of a large part of local society.
Protests are bearing fruit
Despite all this, the Paros Citizens’ Movement for Free Beaches has achieved a lot in just two months. Greek Finance Minister Kostis Hatzidakis pledged last week to step up inspections and identify illegal operations, saying “We will not give up the beaches to anyone.”
Since then, beach umbrellas and sun loungers have been removed from the popular Santa Maria beach on the northeastern coast of Paros and three businesspeople have been arrested and charged.
A public prosecutor from Athens will now travel to the island to assess the situation, and an extraordinary meeting of the local authority will investigate the matter.
Appropriately, the activists celebrated their success by throwing a party on Santa Maria beach.
Adapted from the German by Aingeal Flanagan