What is better than a summer holiday on a perfect beach? Swim and relax, absorb some vitamin D, and enjoy the beauty of nature around. This is what attracts over 30 million tourists to come to Greece every summer. Greece is famous for its beaches, and it would probably be no surprise that if there is an award for beaches, Greece would be amongst the top countries to receive them. Well, there is an award, the Blue Flag. And Greece has many Blue Flag awarded beaches, marinas, and recreational boat operators. A tourist magnet. But are these Blue Flag awarded places the best you can find in Greece?
What is Blue Flag?
Blue Flag awards are the Oscars amongst beaches. Only with many price winners. With the help and support of the Foundation of Environmental Education, the program aims to protect our coasts and promote sustainable tourism. The goal of Blue Flag is “pure water, clean coasts, safety and access for all.”
Blue Flag started in France in 1987 as an initiative to raise environmental awareness amongst children. Although the program had the right goals, it chose the wrong way to achieve them. Groups of children would write messages in plastic bottles to throw into the sea. The idea was that currents would take the bottles to different shores. Whenever someone far away would read this message, he or she should understand the impact litter has on nature. However, not many bottles were ever seen again, and the program started with actually increasing water pollution.
After this, Blue Flag evolved. With the support of the European Union, it grew into the number 1 program to develop quality standards for beaches and seawater. Today the program is active in 48 countries. The majority of participating countries are in the European Union. But, for instance, islands in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and New Zeeland take part as well.
How does a beach get a Blue Flag award?
“A Blue Flag beach, marina or boating operator, is not only a place to give a sense of pride to the community and attract tourism but also promotes environmental issues and awareness.”
A Blue Flag is not only awarded to the most beautiful and clean beaches in this world. There are four categories in which a beach has to score points to acquire this eco-label.
Environmental education and information
One of the main goals of Blue Flag is to connect people to their surroundings. Each awarded beach has to inform visitors about ecosystems and provide environmental education activities.
The waters at a Blue Flag beach should meet ” the requirements for excellent bathing water.” No sewage systems can connect, nor can there be any industrial discharge. The waters have to be clean, healthy, and safe.
Proper waste and recycling management are included in this criteria. But also requirements related to domestic animals, camping, driving, and maintenance of buildings, are covered in this category.
Safety and services
Lifeguards, first aid equipment, and fresh drinking water have to be available to the public. It must be safe to both reach the beach as well as to be there.
Blue Flag beaches in Greece
Around the world, 48 countries participate in the Blue Flag program. Amongst these 48, there are 5.042 awarded beaches, marinas, and boating operators, in 2022. Greece has a total of 602, 12% of the total awards, making Greece the 2nd country on this list. Most awarded are Crete (128), Halkidiki (87), and Rodes (55). But all over Greece there are awarded beaches. Even my beloved, nontouristic beach house is on a Blue Flag beach. Check the map on the Blue Flag website to discover if you have ever been on an awarded beach.
How to interpret the Blue Flag label?
A comfortable, clean, and safe beach
The Blue Flag eco-label is a tourist magnet, but should you travel, chasing the beaches granted this trophy? The answer depends on who you are and who you are traveling with.
When traveling with young children, or if you are disabled or older, the award might be a good guideline when deciding where to go. The Blue Flag beaches must be easy and safely accessible. First aid equipment and lifeguards should be available to help in case something happens, and so are toilets and drinking water. A sea with strong currents or dangerous waves will never make it on the list.
The Blue Flag beaches are safe for children and comfortable for their parents. And since Greece has many cliff-side beaches and terrible dirt roads, the list of Blue Flag beaches is a good indication for people with limited mobility. Besides, all beaches carrying the eco-label must encourage visitors to learn about the environment and contribute to at least 17 Sustainability Development Goals.
The eco-label is not a travel guide
When I look at the 2022 Blue Flag labeled beaches, I can say that the most impressive spots on the Greek coastline did not get the eco-label. Even though requirements for the eco-label include pure water and clean coasts, other criteria are safety and accessibility. Resulting in many Greek paradises that do not make it on the list.
Blue Flag has the status amongst tourists of a travel guide to the best beaches. This is a misconception. Although awarded beaches are clean and environmentally friendly, non-eco-labeled spots can be even more worth visiting.
A beach with the cleanest, bluest water, surrounded by wild nature and without any disturbance of natural life and peace, will not make it on the list. Instead, a concrete road through the untouched nature, is needed for safe access. Environmental education activities have to be offered. Lifeguards should be available, and waste disposal bins should be installed.
The Blue Flag eco-label includes the necessity of human interference. But does this genuinely upgrade the nature of this place? Do these measures increase the sustainability of nature itself? Does it even make the beach a better spot to go to as a tourist?
I would answer with no to all of these questions.
The risk of the Blue Flag award
Most Blue Flag beaches in Greece, are located in areas well known by tourists. Combining this with the fact that municipalities of the beach have to apply themselves for the award, shows that the Blue Flag is not only about a green and eco-friendly holiday. There is economics and competition involved as well.
Today, Greece is second on the list of countries with the most awarded beaches. Spain is first, and Turkey is third. For all these three countries, tourism is important to the economy. Being first on the Blue Flag list plays a role in the number of tourists that visit, making it economically beneficial to have as many beaches as possible granted with the award.
This raises my doubts when it comes to the Blue Flag label. What if competition drives countries to get as many beaches awarded as possible? The result would be a lack of unique, secluded, and rural coastlines.
The Blue Flag award is beneficial in places already known as good holiday destinations. For a beach organized and visited often, I can only praise any attempt to increase sustainability through human action. But I fear that with the increase in the familiarity of the Blue Flag label amongst tourists, the beautiful and untouched beaches of today will turn into tourist magnets in the coming years. Great for the economy, but not for us travelers.
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