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Tourism, Golf, and the Cretan Landscape: reconciling their encounter? Εκτύπωση Αποστολή με e-mail
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Dr Oliver Rackham , Κυριακή, 26 Ιούνιος 2005

Tourism, Golf, and the Cretan Landscape: reconciling their encounter?

Oliver Rackham
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

I was asked to discuss the effect of golf-courses on the Cretan landscape. I am not the right person to ask: I have never played golf and I don’t suppose I ever shall. It would never occur to me to travel to Crete in order to play golf: why go all that way for something you can do better at home?

History of Golf

Golf originated on the east coast of Scotland. It is first heard of in the 15th century; it was banned in 1457. Fifty years later King James IV of Scotland was playing it himself.

Golf is a sport specifically designed for a particular kind of terrain, coastal sand-dunes. The natural behaviour of sand-dune vegetation, grazed by sheep and rabbits, forms the greens (areas of short grassland), the bunkers (unstable patches of wind-eroded sand} and the rough vegetation that provide hazards to test the skill of the player.

The original home of golf was the Old Course at St Andrews. No imprint of it on the dunes can be seen on the 1:10,000 map of Scotland, surveyed in 1854. Only the ancient “Golfers’ Bridge” and the Clubhouse showed then that this was the world’s most famous golf-course.

Golf was originally a demotic sport. It was cheap and anyone played, from kings to shepherd boys. Even now the residents of St Andrews town are entitled to play on the Number 1 course.

figure 1
Figure 1. An early golf-course an the coast of England, 1873. The natural sand-dune vegetation is almost unaltered.

When golf spread to England it was still mainly coastal and was played on sand-dunes (Figure 1). In the late 19th century it was taken up in America, a big country with relatively little coast, and changed its character. Americans invented the idea that by spending enough money it is possible to construct an artificial golf-course anywhere, however unsuitable the terrain. The profession of golf-course architect arose about 100 years ago. Golf, especially foreign golf, became a sport for the rich.

figure 2
Figure 2. Playing golf on sand-dunes, Scotland, 1898. Irrigation has begun (note the bucket). [Caddie: servant who carries the golf-clubs, the objects in the bag].

Artificiality spread to existing golf-courses. As I understand it, the game became simplified to help the sort of people who can afford to play on an artificial golf-course but are not very good at golf. Even at St Andrews the natural sand-dune ecosystem was gradually simplified and tidied away: mown grass has replaced the bunkers and dune. 100 years ago golfers were complaining that the St Andrews course was getting too easy.

As any traveler can see while circling over London before landing at Heathrow Airport, modern inland golf-courses are all much the same, built to a standard pattern of mown grass with standardized bunkers and a few trees.

Golf-course developers claim to be environmentalists. This claim should be treated with suspicion. In Britain some golf-courses protect natural habitats. This becomes more difficult the further golf gets from the ecosystems in which it was born. In the USA making a golf-course involves huge amounts of earth-moving, which is often very destructive. The finished golf-course may contain fragments of the previous ecosystem and may have same wildlife habitats. When golf-course developers claim to conserve wildlife, what they mean is that they conserve common and robust species that tolerate the effects of earth-moving.

What also makes golf controversial is the development that goes with it. Turning a ploughed field into an 18-hole course and a hut for the mower wouldn’t matter much: what is objectionable is the hotel that goes with it. It is this that is refused planning permission, otherwise in a few years it would lead to a new town in a place where a new town ought not to be. When in 20 years or so the fashion for golf declines the golf-course itself may be built on.

How does this apply to Crete?

Why should anyone want to come to Crete to play golf? Some sports have Cretan links, like football or fishing or bullfighting; but why golf that is unknown on the island?

Golf in Scotland is an all-weather game. It is quite energetic - people play it in order to get exercise. It is unsuitable for the combination of heat and humidity that the Cretan coast has in summer. One of the developers boasted that Crete has the longest summer in Europe: that is precisely what makes Crete unsuitable for golf.

In other Mediterranean countries, as in America, golf-courses have made by bulldozing unsuitable terrain. They have been very destructive of natural vegetation. Crete will be worse, because Crete is rocky, and making it into a golf-course will destroy the vegetation, archaeology, and even the geology itself.

An American golf-course architect wrote that the developer can save hundreds of thousands of dollars ...by working with a well-adapted site as opposed to one with inherent problems. Also: “Ideally, all archaeological work is completed before golf course planning begins” [1] - this was written in America where the archaeology is much less abundant than here, but it is jealously guarded, especially by Native Americans. Almost any site in Crete has inherent problems. To satisfy American standards will require bringing in tens of thousands of cubic metres of soil, which risks destroying the vegetation and archaeology of a second site. All this implies a huge and risky investment of capital: it is not the sort of project that I would want to risk my savings on. If by the time it is finished golfers decide they don’t want to play in Crete the destruction will have happened to nobody’s benefit.

figure 3
Figure 3. American-style golf-course in Crete, 2005. Water-sprays, the most inefficient form of irrigation, are trying to keep the grass green, but it is already turning brown, even in the middle of May.

Of the sites proposed, Chersonissos is the least objectionable because the players will come an existing town. However, it seems to be drinking up Mallia’s meagre water supply. When I was there spray irrigation - the most wasteful form - was failing to keep the grass green, and this was already in May! (Figure 3).

Matala at least has sand-dunes; but what I remember about Matala is that it is so hot as to melt the boots off your feet. Will golf-balls explode?

The Toplou scheme is worst, partly because of its huge scale, but also because it will, in effect, create a permanent new town in a very unsuitable part of Crete. It will destroy several square km of one of the outer corners of Crete, which are particularly important habitats, especially because they have remained undeveloped so far. It will compromise the famous palm-wood at Vai. The area is archaeologically important because of the site of Itanos, and has already been the subject of an archaeological survey. It will not help the local population because there is no local population. It is absurd to build vast new hotels in remote parts of Crete when the island already has more hotels than it can fill.

Fortunately the developers can’t yet lay their hands on the extreme north-east tip of Crete because the outer peninsulas are still used by the military.

If Crete needs a new town, why put it in the dry north-east corner? It is a very long way from anywhere, along a road that can’t be improved without doing much more damage. When visitors have got there they will have nothing to do except play golf and complain of the heat and pay their devotions to the Panayia Akrotiriani. (Toplou Monastery seems already to have as many visitors as it can cope with). Anyone wanting to see Knossos will have to spend half a day in a bus getting there and another half-day getting back. There is no water to meet the vast demands of the golf-courses and the town; the developers have talked grandly about desalination, but that will require bringing in huge amounts of energy, which is scarce in an island.

What does this say about tourism in general?

Golf is an example carried to absurdity of how tourist development ignores the features that make a country special and worth visiting, and treats it merely as so much vacant land on which to construct something artificial.

I can just imagine golf being adapted to a form suitable for Crete. It would be a winter sport (as I am told it is around Las Vegas in the Arizona desert). It would be fitted into the existing terrain. People would come in winter and spring to play golf in comfort (winter in Crete isn’t very different from summer in east Scotland); they would enjoy the beauties of the phrygana when the pretty flowers are blooming; they would bring some extra trade to existing hotels which would otherwise be empty. This seems not to be happening: the object of most of the proposals is not to adapt golf to Crete but to adapt Crete to the American form of golf. What the Toplou scheme amounts to is cutting a piece of Crete out of the map and replacing it with a piece of America.

What makes Crete special are the antiquities, the landscape and especially the mountains, and the human culture. Tourism so far has concentrated on the seaside, which is not special. (The Cretan seaside is no better and no worse than anywhere else in the Mediterranean, and has the great disadvantage of no tide). The antiquities have been put very much in second place. The cultural landscape is allowed to decay or frittered away on things like golf-courses, and tourists get to see very little of the human culture.

The disastrous notion still prevails that the Cretan landscape has already been so thoroughly ruined by human misuse that a little further misuse doesn’t matter, or can even be presented as improvement. The promoters of the Toplou scheme boast of planting 100,000 trees, as though that was a good thing. They believe in “restoring vegetation that has been damaged by decades of unrestricted grazing by sheep and goats”. What they have done is to destroy 100,000 trees’ worth of phrygana.

It is still said that Crete was once covered in forest and ought to be forest again. This is untrue, and a tragic misapprehension. There are now several pollen cores from west Crete; they show that since Neolithic times the island has had much the same vegetation categories as it has now. Forest has fluctuated up and down, but there has never been much more forest than there is now. If this is true for relatively wet west Crete, it will be even more so for dry east Crete. [2]

Cretan phrygana landscapes are not to be despised. Promoters of development always take photographs of the present state of the sites in summer, which is the dead season: people seeing the photographs think there is nothing there. Pictures taken in spring reveal the beauty and complexity of phrygana. Crete is renowned for its endemic plants, species found nowhere else. Many endemics are phrygana plants: very few are forest plants.

Phrygana are not a degraded or impoverished type of vegetation. The botanist Erwin Bergmeier studied phrygana and phrygana-steppe ecosystems in detail. At law and middle elevations he found 80-120 plant species in an 8 x 8 m square: he placed these phrygana “among the ecosystems with the highest species density in Europe”. [3] This was in Sphakia, but from my own studies I would expect east Crete to be not far short. Cretan phrygana, especially at the remote corners of the island, are among the biodiversity hotspots of Europe.

The Environmental Impact Assessment of each development should be scrutinized in detail. Did it involve a competent study of the phrygana in spring? If not it is of little use.

As an outsider, I am disappointed that so much tourism in Crete amounts to doing much the same as everyone else is doing, rather than building up a reputation far doing something special. I am very disappointed that just because everyone else has golf-courses Crete must follow. Cretan golf-courses are the last to come and will be the first to be abandoned when the game of golf is no longer fashionable.

[1] MJ Hurdzan, 1991, Golf Course Architecture, Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, Michigan.

[2] to be published in the Sphakia Archeological Survey, forthcoming.

[3] Bergmeier E. 1995, „Die Hohenstufung der Vegetation in Sudwest-Kreta ...entlang eines 2450-m Transektes“, Phytocoenologia 25 317-61.

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