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Greece’s UNESCO Sites Bringing Too Much Foot Traffic, At Risk

ATHENS – Greece’s 18 protected UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Acropolis, are attracting so many tourists that it has cultural experts anxious they could be overwhelmed, calling for more safeguards.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention an international conference opens in Delphi on Nov. 17 under the banner of “challenging times enhancing resilience and sustainability.”

More than half of Greece’s World Heritage sites date from Antiquity, such as the Parthenon in Athens, the Temple of Apollo, Olympia and the sanctuary of Delphi, said Agence France-Presse in a report.

But Byzantine and Middle Age sites are also on the UNESCO list, including the Cave of the Apocalypse on Patmos, the medieval city of Rhodes and Mount Athos, the monastic enclave that bans women.

They all have “reinforced protection,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni told AFP. “Obviously the already high number of visitors has increased,” she added as the Tourism Ministry is trying to get visitors to other sites in the country as well besides the most popular.

The world heritage sites enjoy a privileged position compared with Greece’s other monuments, although they too are supposed to come under strict legislative protection in a country which allows building in protected woodlands.

The UNESCO sites “more easily attract European funding for their conservation,” Antonia Zervaki, Assistant Professor of international relations at the University of Athens told the site.

In August at the height of the summer season,  Mendoni and tourism minister Vassilis Kikilias boasted the Acropolis was seeing 16,000 tourists a day, far more than the previous year.

A concrete walkway that drew derision and criticism for altering the footprint of the Acropolis along the Parthenon was built to accommodate more visitors who bring in more money.

Greece is on a path to break the 2019 tourism records of more than 33 million arrivals and in the first nine months of 2022 the numbers have more than doubled during the waning COVID-19 pandemic from 2021.

That was brought worries about over-tourism changing the character of sites luring people and so many of them that the attractions are being trampled by the unceasing hordes.

“The Greek crisis exacerbated the decline of the scientific model … to the benefit of growth, which is now more of a priority than ever,” said Yannis Theocharis, an archaeologist at the culture ministry.

The Vice-President of the Union of Greek Archaeologists deplored that “numerous monuments have been degraded” by development work. “The contractors get involved in restoration for money reasons,” rather than cultural, he said.

“The reception and management of visitors poses major challenges,” World Heritage Centre Director Lazare Eloundou Assomo told AFP at the Delphi conference about problems.

“Greece is making a real effort to take into account what is at stake from over-tourism, with tangible results,” he added, including electronic ticketing and management systems to try to control the numbers at the Acropolis.

Added Zervaki” “It’s not all black or white. Conservation and exploitation are in a constant struggle to find a fine balance.”

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