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Society

Greece Sold Paradise on Corfu – Then Came Activists, Rich Opponents

CORFU, Greece – Much of the verdant Ionian island Corfu, one of Greece’s most popular destinations, has already been turned into a hodgepodge of developments making a few people very rich, and threatening to destroy the reasons why people go there.

That included arguably its best and most untouched spot, Erimitis, a forested peninsula on the northeast coast within site of the Albanian coast, whose 121 acres was sold in 2013 to the New York investment firm NCH Capital.

The company’s plans were to create a private enclave for the rich that would keep away tourists from beaches accessible only by boat, setting the whole area aside for its customers exclusively.

Promising $120 million in development, NCH Capital got a 99-year lease in another chapter of successive Greek governments selling off public beaches to developers who make them private beaches and essentially gated communities for only their high-paying guests.

The locals weren’t happy and it has taken nearly a decade of opposition from the mayor, activists, naturalists, environmentalists, the widow of author Gerald Durrell, whose family lived there, and unlikely allies in super-rich part-time residents – and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – to put it on hold.

In a feature for The Daily Beast, writer Alex Sakalis featured how the oddball loose coalition has so far succeeded in some measure in slowing the plans that were approved ironically by the former ruling anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA.

When they were ousted, the New Democracy government backed the project even more strongly, even passing a law to prevent a local official from using power to stop it, overwhelming the resistance.

Xenia Tombrou, an activist on the island told the site that, “When we first saw the plans, we were horrified.” The proposed development included the construction of a 90-room five-star hotel, 76 rental bungalows, 40 villas, a 57-berth marina, a 5-km road and several car parks. “It would be the end of Erimitis as we know it,” she said.

“It really is a paradise,” says Xenia. “For a piece of Mediterranean coastline to have remained so unexploited, unsettled and unchanged for so long is rare,” she said. But Greek governments wanting money didn’t care.

Erimitis, because of its inaccessibility, has been a favorite place for hiking, swimming, or just enjoying nature. There are no hotels, villas, restaurants or beach bars. You bring what you need and leave nothing behind, the report said.

That also made it a lure for NCH Capital which saw the potential before a recent rush of similar luxury developments around Greece is turning most of its most beautiful places into playgrounds for the rich.

THE GOOD FIGHT

Tombrou said the mega-development would change the character of Erimitis forever and that it had to be stopped. “Erimitis is part of what makes Corfu special. Without it, the island loses a piece of its soul,” she said. “We had to fight it.”

Despite the combined clout of the diverse opponents, they kept losing challenges in the courts and with SYRIZA and New Democracy as it slowly proceeded, the company beating back the critics.

Iphigenia Apergi, a campaign coordinator at what became Save Erimitis, told the site that, “Most residents are against the project because they already have a high quality of tourism in the area, the value of which is a direct consequence of the Erimitis ecosystem.”

She added: “The resort is designed as a closed loop where everything is catered in-house and tourists wouldn’t need to leave the complex. Therefore, local businesses would not benefit.”

In August 2017, heavy machinery began widening the footpaths to access construction sites until the mayor stepped in front of them, and opponents used every tactic they could think of to thwart the development.

Wealthy ex-patriates on the island and Lee Durrell, whose late husband’s 1956 book brought interest to Corfu as a tourist destination, still lives there and she appealed first to SYRIZA leader and then Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and current Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. She was ignored.

“It’s such a diverse and beautiful biosphere, one of the last untouched places on the island. To take that away would be sinful,” she said.

In July 2020, with the Coronavirus creating lockdowns and attention being shone on Erimitis, Mitsotakis went there to back the plan and development, setting aside the protests of 800 residents to say it had to be done because “If we do nothing, at some point it will burn down anyway.”

A month later, a swath of the spot did, believed to be arson – a common tool to allow development – but no one has been charged, also common in these cases in Greece where wildfires are followed by resorts and homes.

One opponent, Jörg Rockenhäuser – an equity firm investor whose wife is of Greek heritage and they have a house there – said he got involved, buying up 123.5 acres for $6 million, because “We can’t allow nature to be sacrificed on the altar of the destructive force that is mass tourism.”
For all that, the opposition was losing and the bulldozers back early in 2021 and the company’s Managing Director for the Western Balkans, Greece and Cyprus, Andreas Santis said it couldn’t be stopped.

But then it did, when Russia invaded Ukraine – NCH has big holdings in both countries – and the war brought European Union sanctions, disdain for those investing in Russia and soaring costs for raw materials and other goods.

The site said that reports have come out indicating that NCH wants to sell the prime piece of real estate but that the cost exceeds even the deepest pockets of some of the richest of the opponents of the development – which could happen, even if by another rich company.

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