Make tourism work for nature not destruction

8 June 2019

This world oceans day (8 June), it’s time to make tourism work for our coastal nature, not destroy it.

It’s the time of year when, if we're luck enough, many of us are looking forward to a holiday at the coast. A chance to get away somewhere beautiful, see new sites, and reconnect by experiencing some of the truly wondrous nature Europe has to offer. There’s nothing better than time spent in nature to ground us and de-stress.

Every year, millions of tourists flock to visit Europe’s most stunning natural sites, excited to enjoy our sun-kissed beaches and beautiful countryside. They may not know that they could be visiting one of the 787,000 square kilometers of land or 550,000 square kilometers of ocean safeguarded under EU nature protection laws. That’s 18% of EU land and 10% of our ocean area preserved for wildlife, under some of the most far-reaching nature laws in the world.

Nature in danger from out-of-control tourism

Sadly however, out-of-control tourism developments are all too often trampling over protected nature and crowding out wildlife. Unsustainable tourism development is a major driver of biodiversity loss in Europe. Whether it be new hotels or golf resorts intruding on precious wildlife areas; or tourism activity trampling plants and nesting areas and crowding out the space nature needs. We are often destroying the very nature we love to visit.

With half of all international tourist arrivals (671 million) in the world, Europe’s tourism sector is worth hundreds of billions of euros, and growing fast. The temptation for businesses and regional and national governments to put commercial pressures ahead of saving Europe’s precious natural heritage is all too real.

Unfortunately, major gaps in the implementation and enforcement of Europe’s nature laws are leaving nature in danger. Despite growing recognition of ‘ecological crisis’, Europe’s laws to protect our oceans, rare wildlife and nature sites from unsustainable developments, like irresponsible tourism, are being broken with impunity.

Limni in Cyprus

Limni beach (c) FoE Cyprus

One example is Limni beach in eastern Cyprus - a crucial protected breeding ground for Loggerhead turtles and a feeding ground for Green turtles. These turtles face a very high risk of extinction in the wild, and are strictly protected under EU law. However, a controversial tourism project, the Limni Bay Resort, has been granted planning permission for two golf courses, a 160-room hotel and 792 residential villas adjacent to Limni beach.

The increase in visitor numbers and light pollution will have a hugely detrimental impact on one of Europe’s single most important Loggerhead turtle nesting sites, impacting a quarter of all Cyprus’s Loggerhead sea turtle nests.

To safeguard the turtles, scientists and the European Commission recommended a 500m no-build zone around the protected beach. But the Cypriot Urban Planning office ignored this and gave the go-ahead to a much smaller buffer zone - which EU Environment Commissioner Vella has not objected to. NGOs maintain this is inadequate for rare turtles to breed. The golf resort development has now fallen into the hands of the Bank of Cyprus, but with permission granted, the iconic turtles of Limni are still at threat.

Ulcinj Salina in Montenegro

Flamingoes at Ulcinj Salina in Montenegro - (c) CZIP (BirdLife in Montenegro)

Another example is Ulcinj Salina in Montenegro. Its unique, biodiversity-rich ecosystem is actually man-made – a happy accident resulting from the huge salt production complex that operated here from the 1920s until 2013. The salt works brought precious “white gold” in the form of employment for the local community; and a plethora of birds - including nesting spotted redshanks and collared pratincole, and stone curlews stopping off to rest and refuel.

Salt production terminated in 2013 when the owner of the works declared bankruptcy; but now the future of Ulcinj Salina is under question. One controversial plan is to drain this migratory bird paradise, and convert the site into a luxury tourist resort of hotels and golf courses. So far public outcry and local NGO campaigns by CZIP (BirdLife Montenegro) have held off this plan. But there is evidence of dirty dealings afoot: the salt pan pumps – essential for maintaining optimal water levels for nesting and foraging birds – have been vandalized and flamingo breeding areas have been raided and their eggs stolen.

An international campaign – #SaveSalina – is gathering support to pressure the Montenegrin government to declare Ulcinj Salina a protected nature zone and reinstate salt protection for wildlife and the local community. The European Union must ensure, as part of Montenegro’s accession to the EU, that the wetland is not sold out to unsustainable tourism, but becomes a protected area.

Zakynthos in Greece 

Turtle trapped amongst sunbeds, Zakynthos, Greece - (c) WWF Greece

Tourists and turtles arrive during the same period on the beautiful sandy beaches of Zakynthos, an island struggling to find the right balance between development and conservation. The National Marine Park on the south side of the island hosts the Mediterranean’s most important nesting area for loggerhead turtles.

Enforcement of EU nature laws has helped to protect the area. But still, these nesting grounds are under constant threat from tourism demands, combined with weak nature management. Illegal coastal developments, such as beach enterprises and road constructions threaten these sensitive nesting grounds; as do breaches of the protection rules, such as excessive beach furniture, night access to beaches and uncontrolled maritime traffic.

The good news is that the European Commission has twice successfully taken legal action to protect Zakynthos nature. But since then, compliance with the court’s decisions have been unstable. The European Commission monitors the situation on Zakynthos regularly, but without taking any action. It must review the effectiveness of management and warden measures to ensure EU nature laws are fully applied.

Tourism FOR nature

We all enjoy visiting beautiful places. It’s good for our well-being. Sustainable tourism can be good for nature too. In some cases, it is a lifeline and a local economic alternative that can support nature conservation and jobs. Sustainable tourism that works in harmony with nature conservation is possible, and necessary.

But to preserve the beautiful places we love to visit, tourism developments must be carefully controlled to meet nature conservation objectives.

Where EU protected sites, species and ocean zones are involved, the EU nature laws are a vital framework of regulations that should ensure this. But they need full implementation and enforcement. EU Environment Commissioner Vella must push EU Member States to implement the Directives and to complete the designation of the marine Natura 2000 network and ensure its effective management. In his last days in post, he still has a chance to leave a legacy and clamp down on unsustainable tourism developments by stepping up enforcement and challenging breaches of the law. Preserving Europe’s natural treasures for all of us and for the future.

Island of Comino Malta, protected nature under increasing pressure from tourism