Agro-Tourism in Vamos

Last week I happened to be in Vamos to see an art exhibition, when I heard there was an Agro-Tourism convention in town. Being interested/curious/nosey, I went into the Vamos sa office across the road and asked about it. A charming young woman named Evie told me it was a business convention for Agro-Tourism businesses from all over Greece. The convention, the first of its kind, was meeting at three venues in Crete: Vamos was the second, and the next day they would go to Milia.

Vamos sa is a co-operative that has been restoring old houses in the village as guest-houses for about 10 years. They also have the associated taverna, a traditional products shop, the art gallery and a café. Evie was busy in her organising role, but said there was an exhibition that evening at the school. I retired for lunch at the excellent taverna across the road which serves all organic food and even beer. I was asked to move my seat as there was a block booking, and, of course, in came the convention members for lunch just after me. Even without talking to them, it was obvious they were a special bunch of people: men and women who looked relaxed but animated together, with casual and interesting appearance. Evie told me later it was thrilling for her to be among so many like-minded people, all of whom were living the lives they had chosen because of their love of Greece, it’s environment and traditions, rather than simply for profit. That evening I went up to the school for the public exhibition, but it seemed to have been a bit of an afterthought as there were only a few posters and leaflets, and I was the only member of the public there- I must have been, as apparently I was seen on Kydon TV that night, flicking though a brochure!

The following week I had a long conversation with Evie about Agro-tourism in Greece and what the convention was all about. Broadly, the aims of the convention were to meet and get to know what all the very different businesses were doing, to understand each other and the problems they had in common. There was also a goal of improving co-ordination in the future. The plan is to set up a not-for-profit organisation both to help promote agro-tourism in Greece (it is not really known as an agro-touristic destination at present), and as a pressure group to improve the legal situation of the sector. The organisation would attempt to define their common principles and purposes more clearly, for instance how far they would embrace ‘eco-tourism’; while at the same time being very careful not to be too prescriptive, as all the companies were very different and had their own unique situations.

In the longer term, there is a clear need for the sector to be represented directly in government, for instance in The Ministry of Tourism. Many of the sector’s problems at present stem from the lack of a separate identity, because many of the taxation and other regulations that apply to tourism in general don’t work for small agro-tourist enterprises. It seemed survival for these small companies could be a desperate struggle, since they were regulated in the same ways as huge hotels and mass tourism enterprises. Special understanding is needed of the concerns of small businesses that are trying to conserve traditional buildings and environments rather than build new ones. Also, if they want to offer traditional hospitality, the taxation rules often make it impossible. For instance, if you want to serve your guests a loaf of bread baked in a traditional oven, you need a baker’s license! And so on. If you were to live within the law, there is no way you can offer the wholistic hospitality you would like to, as you need separate licenses for every activity. It seems everything is stacked against small businesses like this earning money, so it’s a miracle of hard work and dedication that wonderful places like Vamos and Milia exist at all. The Greek government, it seems, is yet to wake up to the idea of supporting environmental conservation in any way, despite the recent applause given to Al Gore!

We talked about the eco-tourism/agro tourism relationship. I mentioned the example of Milia, who generate their own energy, grow their own organic food, recycle everything, and where there is not a TV, air conditioner or swimming pool to be seen.
She confesses the difficulty in going this far, since guests, especially foreign ones, do ask for swimming pools and the like, and of course it’s a competitive market. It seems there has to be room under the agro-tourism umbrella for some compromise, but the carbon footprints still had to be lighter than the average package holiday one would hope.

I asked what effect the new house building boom in Apokoronou was having on the Vamos project. Evie frowned. ‘It’s really terrible,’ she said. ‘We have trucks and building plant moving through the village all the time. Because the main economy of the village is not tourism, they can work here throughout the year. It really affects us. And these new houses they are building are so…
‘Horrible?’ I suggested.
‘They are terrible really. Not well built at all and not in the local style. They do not fit in.’

It’s incredible that a conservation company only ten years old should have seen such vast, disruptive and unpredicted change in its lifetime. Vamos is said to be one of the few living traditional villages in Crete, (as opposed to ‘ghost villages’). The work of the co-operative has been painstaking to restore and revitalise it. The new development literally bulldozes through it. But local government, it seems, is uninterested in this rapid and irreversible change. ‘Politicians?’ she says. ‘Money and glory. That’s all.’

But at the end of the day, her face brightens as she remembers the atmosphere of the convention, where so many Greeks shared their common visions, and their respect and sensitivity for each other and the environment. Yes, they were optimistic, she said. In some way, they were playing their part in resisting the destruction of our planet. Despite all the difficulties, Evie and her friends are living their dreams. They should inspire respect in us all.

©Cora Greenhill

July 12th 2007

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