Crete: Blessed by Nature and Cursed by Tourism?

A view of the village entrance in Archanes

by Ares Kalandides

Dimitirs Mavrakis leaves his kitchen just for a couple of minutes, his face lined with flour, to say a warm hello and talk about the crisis.  “What do the Germans say about us?” is the first thing he asks. Together with his wife Maria they have run the restaurant Kritamon on Crete for the past 5 years and they depend on tourists to survive. “We have our regular guests, but generally locals don’t come very often”, explains Dimitris. “We offer home-made food, a contemporary version of what our mothers and grandmothers used to cook. When people here go out they need something special, not the kind of food they traditionally make at home”. Yet Kritamon is probably one of the best restaurants in Crete, located in the small town of Archanes, about fifteen minutes from the island’s capital, Iraklion, in the midst of a large vineyard valley.

The quiet courtyard of “Kritamon”

To the west stands “Youchtas”, the holy mountain of the Minoans, where remains of a human sacrifice were found, probably in the last days of the last disastrous earthquakes that ended the Minoan civilization. For Dimitris Youchtas is where he goes to collect wild herbs and salads (“only until April, after that everything is dry”) for his kitchen. Surrounding the leafy square of Archanes are the typical “kafeníon” and some tavernas, ubiquitous in every Greek village. But the gems or Archanes are bound to be lost for the hasty tourist. The archeological museum, the old oil press and in one of the side trees Maria’s and Dimitri’s “Kritamon”.

Dimitris Mavrakis and his home-made pasta

Cretan cuisine is considered to be one of the healthiest in the world. Based on excellent olive oil and everything that the blessed land has to offer, it is of a huge diversity and versatility. It makes it even more shocking to see that tavernas in Iraklio all advertise “moussaka” and “gyros”, neither of them local specialities, but deeply engraved in the tourist mind as typically Greek. Do you decide to service stereotypes or do you develop your own identity in order to attract tourists? In most places people go the easy way: if tourists want gyros (a rather disgusting concoction of bad quality meat) then give them gyros. Chances are that they will not even try escargots – not even the Cretan variety “bourbouristi” with olive oil, vinegar and rosemary.  Although tourists go chasing after the images they already have in their minds, more and more people are looking for new and “authentic” (with all the difficulties to define the term) experiences.

Escargots “Bourbouristoi”

Tourists are consumers, but we are far from the time where a consumer was considered a passive participant of the sales process.  We now know that the consumer also forms the product she consumes. A visit to the tourist areas of northern Crete (Chersonissos or Mallia) with the hordes of drunken, sunburned and sex-crazed northern European youths in the summer is enough to turn you off the island for good. Yet for years, tourism marketing for Greece was based on stereotypes attracting exactly this kind of mass tourism.

“In 2012 there is a drop in tourism between 40%-80% depending on the area” says Dimitirs while he generously pours his own home-made liqueur, based on Cretan “tsikoudia” and a mix of wild lemony herbs. “On the one hand it is the Greek political instability, but that can not be all”. The truth is that tourism numbers in Greece were falling rapidly in the past years (with an exception in 2011 which was interpreted as a side-effect of the Arab spring). It seems that tourists were getting tired of Greece or that they could find similar (or better) services at competitive prices elsewhere.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have still to see a serious economic analysis of the local benefits vs. costs of tourism. It is not enough to look at numbers of overnight stays or arrival at the airport. How much is left in the hands (or pockets) or international tour-operators and how much benefits the locals? How high are the infrastructure costs of the local communities to serve tourism? Is there a competition between tourism and other economic activities, e.g. when both tourism and agriculture fight over the same limited resources such as water? Let’s not even start talking about other types of cultural effects on local communities.

Kritamon. Inside the restaurant.

I am not speaking here against tourism. I am just sharing my thoughts with you on whether we need to rethink tourism and its potential benefits, rethink the way we market places and cultures, but also the way we then manage tourism. Crete is for me an excellent example of how parallel universes can exist so close to each other. On the one hand the tourist resorts in the north and on the other Dimitri’s “Kritamon” in Archanes. Do we have a way to bring tourists to places they don’t know? And do we even want to? I’m open to your ideas…



Restaurant Kritamon:


Cretan gastronomy:

Spiegel Online article: Greece Holiday Bookings Plunge due to Turmoil

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2 Responses to Crete: Blessed by Nature and Cursed by Tourism?

  1. Daniel Zimet says:

    Two remarks to this chllenging article : One, the Cyberspace era indicates of the natural human urge to offset the Global arena we all live in with an intimate experience in a romantic, though unknown place like Archanes…. Second, it seems that we all experience a human passion to explore new and authentic cultures and one can easily find them in places such as Dimitirs Mavrakis’s kitchen and not in the streets of Manhatten, Oxford street or at Tour Effel in Paris…. think of it !

    • Ares says:

      I definately agree with you, Daniel. That is what I look for when I travel. But is it possible that we are a small minority? I mean, can you build a tourism strategy based on “us”?

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