Marseille, France — Now that COVID-19 appears to be winding down to the point that people can once again live ‘normally’, Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Croatia, France, Spain, Italy, and Tunisia are already experiencing significant upsurges in tourism. Recent travellers to places like Istanbul, Athens, St Tropez, Venice and Barcelona have all reported far larger crowds than last year, including at airports and ports. For tourism operators, this is a welcome relief to the severe downturns they experienced in 2020 and 2021.
Yet the numbers remain paltry in comparison to the busy 2019 pre-pandemic period (only 46 per cent globally by July 2022) when an estimated 350 million visitors converged on the Mediterranean representing 30 per cent of world tourism. Until Covid caused everything to crash with the closing of hotels, restaurants, bars, car rentals, and other tourism-related businesses coupled with massive job losses, their activities contributed significantly toward local and national economies.
As pointed out by the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP), pre-pandemic projections for the Mediterranean were predicting up to 500 million arrivals – half frequenting coastal areas – by 2030. Today’s new normal, however, implies that current expectations will not come close to this figure. In 2019, an estimated two million jobs in European Union Mediterranean countries were the result of what is known as the “Blue Economy,” notably anything to do with the sea and its coastal areas. “Nearly 80 percent of these were provided by tourism until Covid,” noted one UNEP representative. “But many simply disappeared. It’s going to take a while to gain them back.”
Governments and the private sector still hope that tourism will once again prove a lucrative factor toward rebuilding economies. Cairo’s brand new Grand Egyptian Museum, for example, the world’s largest archaeological institution more than 10 years and one billion dollars in the making, expects to benefit from renewed travel. Scheduled to open in time for the UN-sponsored COP27 Climate Change Conference in November this year at the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh, this extraordinary museum hopes to attract six million visitors annually.
No more business as usual
However, while tourism is reviving, a return to “business as usual” is unlikely to be on the books. Nor is it necessarily welcomed by many, such as conservationists who point to the destructive tendencies of unsustainable tourism on wildlife and fragile ecosystems. Their concern is shared by others, including the private sector, some of whom regard the ‘retour’ – as the French like to call it – as an opportunity to do things better. Sustainable tourism is becoming a commercial asset. Even wealthy super yacht owners, whose marine diesel fuel consumption is enormous, realise that that they can no longer simply ignore their impact on the Mediterranean. As one entrepreneur noted: “We’re going to have to become far more engaged. If we wish to continue enjoying this extraordinary inland sea, then we’ll need to act in order to ensure its survival. It’s all about giving back.”
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Elsewhere communities such as Barcelona and Marseille are taking concrete steps to make mass tourism more manageable and respectful of the environment. For example, the Calanque National Park near Marseille is now restricting the number of visitors (400 a day rather than the previous 2,500 or more) able to visit the reserve at any one time. “Since 2021, our objective is to make Marseille far greener with more resilient, sustainable and innovative forms of tourism that are also more respectful of the local population,” noted one city official.
Other cities and countries are seeking to improve local infrastructure, such as more bike paths, or even free public transport. Spain has announced making its state-run railways completely free as of September 2022. This is designed to not only encourage people to leave their cars at home but also to cope with rising fuel costs.
According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in Madrid, the pandemic, economic downturns, and climate change have upended everything. But so have higher airfares and energy prices, the war in Ukraine and the fear of being stuck in Covid lockdown given the ongoing emergence of new variants. Western sanctions against Moscow, for example, have meant a drop not only in the use of pleasure yachts by well-heeled Russians in places such as Monte Carlo and Nice, but also their purchasing of luxury goods. COVID also continues to affect overseas travel by Chinese. “We’ve noticed a major drop in certain clientel,” said one art dealer in St Tropez, who also runs a gallery in Venice. Fortunately, she maintains, given the growing interest in the Mediterranean as a global art hub, “we’ve seen a major return of Americans and other visitors.”
While the cafes are full in places like St Maxime, Porto Fino and Genoa, Scanidnavians and Germans are not necessarily driving down to the Cote d’Azur, booking beach resorts in Tunisia or flying to Casablanca. “People are watching budgets and thinking twice about where to go,” said one WTO official. “Many are taking holidays closer to home, in their own countries.” Brexit is another harsh reality. Apart from having severely curbed the ability of British business to trade with its former EU partners, the UK decision has inadvertently placed curbs on its nationals seeking to vacation, or even work in places like southern France, Spain and Italy. “Nothing is going to be like before,” added the WTO official.
Another emerging trend is that tourists themselves are becoming more mindful of the environment by pursuing more eco-friendly activities such as hiking, birding and even engaging in volunteer activities, such as clearing beaches of rubbish or helping to re-establish nature reserves. These are all viewed as new business opportinities. “Tourists are actually an asset that need to be better exploited for the common good,” noted one scientist at a Plan Bleu organized workshop, which is part of the Mediterranean Action Plan. “Why not reach out to them to explain how they can contribute?”
A growing list of concerns requiring immediate long-term action
COP27, which was hosted last year in Glasgow, Scotland, signals the urgent need for governments to become far more serious about dealing with climate change, disaster risk reduction and other related threats. “Sharm-el-Sheikh is going to become a make or break conference,” commented a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) officer in Geneva. “They’re going to have to agree on hard decisions, not platitudes.” Last October 2021, WMO and the UN’s Disaster Risk Reduction agency (UNDRR) joined with other organizations to create the Centre of Excellence for Climate and Disaster Resilience for promoting more decisive and better informed policy shifts.
With the Mediterranean reflecting all the key challenges, the impact of global warming stands at the top of the list with rising temperatures, droughts, and out-of-season flooding, all of which are leading to a steady increase in forest fires and coastal erosion. There is also a disconcerting rise in the spread of human-caused waste, such as plastics, coupled with water and air pollution responsible for an estimated 228,000 deaths a year. Fragile ecosystems, notably wetlands, reefs, and marine conservation zones, are being steadily encroached upon or destroyed.
“The Mediterranean has one of the richest biosystems in the world,” notes Jean Jalbert, Director General of the Tour du Valat wetlands conservation institute in France’s Camargue. “And yet it is being affected far more than elsewhere. One of our most difficult challenges will be defining a common position if we are to protect such areas.” The Tour du Valat centre was founded in 1954 by Swiss ornithologist and benefactor Luc Hoffmann. (See Global Insights article by Elizabeth Kemf)
According to Thomas Galewski, theme coordinator of Tour du Valat, the main threats are climate change, agricultural intensification, urbanization, excessive water abstraction and the building of dams leading to the drying up of wetlands and rivers. To this one can add overfishing and the abusive exploitation of species, such as birds, land mammals and reptiles.
Migratory birds, for example, such as the European stork which summers in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, but also over two billion songbirds, are suffering increasingly from threats to their staging and winter locations. This is primarily because of climate change but also farming, urbanization, hunting and the destruction of natural habitats.
“I don’t see any of these threats disappearing,” said Galewski. “Clearly the impact of climate change is going to get much worse with at least a triple impact: increase in temperatures, decrease in precipitation…and a rise in sea level.”
Threats that are already overwhelming
The situation has become critical in recent decades. Representing one of 34 biodiversity hotspots worldwide, the Mediterranean is witnessing more and more of its endemic wildlife ranging from sharks and rays to mammals, reptiles and freshwater fish species threatened with extinction. Inappropriate tourism, agriculture, such as fertilizer runoff, and the introduction of non-indigenous species are also having a drastic impact.
As a region, the Mediterranean is warming 20 per cent faster than the global average. It is expected to rise 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. This, in turn, is encouraging invasive species – up to 400 or more, such as jellyfish, lionfish, and sharks – to slip through the Suez Canal, particularly since it was expanded in 2016, causing concern amongst Saudi, Israeli, Egyptian and other regional scientists.
“Conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea around Cyprus or Lebanon are perfect for many Red Sea species. And so we’re seeing them invade and do really well,” said Jason Hall-Spencer, Professor of Marine Biology at Plymouth in the UK. “So it’s a combined effect. The canal is the source of the problem, but secondarily is the fact that the temperature of the water is getting more akin to the Red Sea.”
The loss of biodiversity has been very noticeable in recent years, observes British skipper and Royal Yacht Association (RYA) instructor Bill Bond, who first began sailing the Mediterranean over 40 years ago. “Over the past past decade, I have seen almost no more whales, porpoises or even flying fish.” Standing in St Tropez’s main port, now once again packed with massive private yachts, he added: “The Mediterranean has changed, for the worse, with pollution and everything else. The way things are going, we may soon be dealing with a dead sea.” It is an observation widely shared by other seafarers, including commercial fishermen who fear for their livelihoods.
Political and economic drivers
Other key factors are provoking profound impacts. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is prompting even more refugee exoduses as well as severe curbs on wheat exports worldwide, while political and human rights repression in countries such as Turkey, Libya and Tunisia are making it difficult for outsiders to visit or invest. Poor economic conditions and growing insecurity in Western and Northeastern Africa but also Afghanistan, Iran and Syria are encouraging people, particularly youth, to pick up and leave via the Mediterranean. They want new lives and jobs, and they believe Europe holds the key.
As environmental analysts point out, while countering global warming remains a principal concern, so does overfishing, oil and cruise ship pollution, as well as inappropriate urban development. The problem now is how to convince governments, companies, local inhabitants, and tourists to change their habits and to practise more responsible behaviour for bringing about the actions so drastically needed.
From erosion of cultural heritage to drought: The need to make people aware
News coverage of the renewed surge in forest fires from Spain and France to Algeria, or the massive influx of invasive marine species have placed some of these issues back on the agenda. These stories are showing people what is at stake. (Why climate change matters to your health, wealth and security by Paul Majewski, Charles Norchi and Alexander More, Global Insights)
If policymakers, but also the private sector, are to step up with more effective long-term strategies and new ideas, this means taking other equally urgent problems into account. For example, over 80 per cent of the Mediterranean’s world cultural heritage sites are endangered by coastal erosion and rising waters. Then there is drought, the “silent enemy”, resulting from an increasing shortage of rain and water resources. Desert landscapes are now steadily encroaching on once viable farmlands and crucial wetlands in Morocco, Turkey, Italy, and even the south of France. These relatively recent developments are likely to provoke even more migration to the big cities, not only in the Mediterranean region but northern Europe.
“Because of climate change and human demography, the demand for water is likely to increase, leaving less water for nature,” adds Tour du Valat’s Galewski. “Entire regions will no longer be habitable or arable due to desertification or sea level rise.”
Another critical factor is pollution. According to recent scientific studies, an estimated 730 tons of plastic are dumped into the Mediterranean every day. One only need stroll along the beaches, particularly after a storm with waves causing floating or submerged waste to drift onto shore. Much of this is produced by tourists and cruise ships but also illegal industrial dumping. Over 95 per cent of plastics account for floating and beach litter, while over 50 per cent of seabed refuse is also plastic.
Plastics: Flloding markets with toxic fish
For the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, the Mediterranean, but also seas and oceans elsewhere, has now reached the point whereby microplastics found in catches are making human consumption of fish increasingly hazardous, regardless of whether these are bought at the market or eaten in restaurants. Considered one of the worst forms of environmental abuse, the manufacturing and distribution of single use plastics are not only devastating marine life, but entering the food chain. Even major Mediterranean supermarkets such as Carrefour, LeClerc, SPAR, Elephant, Tesco and Intermarché are not spared. As one worried wholesale buyer for a leading European supermarket chain recently admitted: “We can simply no longer guarantee whether the fish we sell are toxic or not. Plastics are affecting every species from the bottom to the top of the food chain.”
“If people had any idea what they’re eating, they probably wouldn’t buy fish anymore,” maintained Alexander Norberg, a Swedish diver near the French coastal town of St Maxime who spearfishes offshore where he believes there to be less pollution. As UNEP notes, with an estimated 100,000 fishing vessels, 83 per cent considered small-scale, hundreds of thousands of people ranging from coastal ports in Egypt and Morocco to Spain and Italy rely on fishing for their survival. This does not include the over 30,000 fish farms, almost all small to medium-sized enterprises and family-owned operations.
The Mediterranean: Time for a major policy overhaul
As one of the planet’s most important maritime hubs, the Mediterranean’s 520 million+ inhabitants (6.7 per cent of the world’s population) must embrace an urgent overhaul in the way their governments and communities deal with such threats. But they must also involve the rest of the international community. Most countries around the world rely, in one way or another, on this extraordinary region for their well-being. One painful recent example is the fact that much of Africa depends on Ukraine and Russia for more than a third of its wheat imports from Black Sea ports into the Mediterranean and beyond.
Innovative approaches need to come from all sides, whether dynamic Mediterranean cities, or huge conglomerates such as Denmark’s Maersk, France’s Total Energies, and Holland’s Unilever. Local entrepreneurs, too, can help stimulate change through dynamic new ideas, such as ‘water wizard’ Alain Gachet of RTI Exploration (See Global Insights article), or international institutions such as UNEP, the Living Oceans Foundation and the Rewilding Institute. Much of what they do may not only prove of benefit for the Mediterranean, but oceans worldwide.
Seeking solutions that make a difference
Rewilding, for example, is one way of helping to return ecosystems to their original wild state to the benefit not only of wildlife but local human populations. This is already happening in parts of the Mediterranean, such as the Eastern Rhodopes Mountains in Bulgaria and northern Greece where rewilding is not only helping to increase the diversity of plants and animals but also to contain forest fires through more sustainable and balanced wooded landscapes, shrublands and watersheds.
According to Patricia Leon, programme officer for the Eastern Tropical Pacific of Re:wild headquartered in Austin, Texas, successful rewilding can only really occur in conjunction with proper analysis. Speaking in a Zoom interview from her base in the Galapagos Islands, she maintains that re-wilding is not just about planting trees. “It needs to be part of a very long process, and needs to involve local communities. People need to see that they are also benefitting,” she says.
While not yet operating in the Mediterranean, the Institute has Latin and North American ocean projects which could be replicated or adapted to islands off the coast of France, Italy, Croatia or Turkey. In the Galapagos Islands, for example, Leon explains how rewilding has helped bring back the Floreana tortoise, which was almost extinct and no longer existed on the island. Scientists have now managed to breed back over 800 small tortoises, which can play an extremely important role in helping to disperse plant seeds across the island.
But such approaches, Leon adds, also means getting rid of invasive species. Her organization’s experience, for example, could be used for dealing with the recent invasion over the past 15 years of at least four snake species via imported ornamental olive trees from the Spanish mainland to the island of Ibiza. The snakes are now in danger of wiping out the local green lizard.
Overall, there are no shortages of ideas for dealing effectively with current threats. One approach for more effective conservation actions to halt the decline in biodiversity is to increase current actions tenfold, suggests Thomas Galewski. This includes designating new protected areas, better management of farmlands, the sea and forests, the strengthening of pertinent legislation, and the stepping up of rewilding with the reintroduction or reinforcement of vulnerable species.
The Tour du Valat, for example, has been converting former salt pans in the Camargue to natural wetlands, which, scientists believe, will mitigate the impact of rising sea levels. The steady increase of European and Mediterranean waterbirds through the improvement of ecosystems since the 1970s is regarded as another success story. The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, which spends part of its biological cycle in the Mediterranean, was also saved from extinction through strict fishing quotas, while in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Tunisia, local associations monitor sea turtles by preventing their eggs from being destroyed by humans and their pets. This has resulted in greater breeding success and an increase in sea turtles in the Mediterranean.
But as conservationists as well as forward-thinking policymakers point out, the key for bringing back the Mediterranean lies with making the general public, the private sector and governments more aware of the dangers at hand, but also of possible solutions. Only then will all stakeholders from shipping and petroleum companies to port cities and local communities be persuaded to support the actions that are so urgently needed.
WIKI’s Centennial Expedition: A multmedia venture to Help Save The Med is the three-year international multimedia initiative set up by Edward Girardet and Tom Woods, both of whom will serve as mentors to the project, particularly the young and dynamic reporting collective they are now establishing.
Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent, author and editor of the Geneva-based Global Insights Magazine. He has covered wars and humanitarian crises worldwide for The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report and the PBS Newshour. His books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “Killing the Cranes – A reporter’s journey through three decades of war in Afghanistan”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.” Girardet is currently working on a new book, The American Club: The Hippy Trail, Peshawar Tales and the Road to Kabul.
Tom Woods an award-winning director and producer. He founded his production company, Woods Communications Ltd. in 1988. He has been awarded several national Emmys for his work as a cameraman and as a director. His company has produced sports, entertainment and factual programming for numerous international broadcasters such as The BBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, Discovery, Netflix, FOX, PBS, France Televisions, Arte, Special Broadcast Services, ZDF & ARD….He and Girardet have also worked together on various documentaries in Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Zambia, Mozambique…He has also produced major productions for NBC on The Tour de France, America’s Cup and the World Cup.