What If We Didn’t Have National Parks?

Sometimes the best way to see the value of something is to lose it. Your mobile phone is just an everyday convenience until you wash it in a pair of pants and you can’t call people or check email at any time from anywhere. In the same way, the best way to see the value of legally protected land in scenic areas is to explore what happens when natural beauty isn’t protected.

For our example, let’s head over to the southern Aegean Sea to the island of Santorini. Famous for its sunsets, Santorini is the upper part of the world’s largest volcano–not volcanic archipelago, it is an actual volcano, with few recent eruptions but continued seismic activity. The total land area of the islands (two of the six are inhabited) is 35 square miles, and the permanent population is about 15,000.

The topography of Santorini is extremely impressive: the western side of the island has steep, dramatic cliffs that plunge hundreds of meters into the caldera of the volcano, while the gentler slopes of the eastern side slide into the light blue waters of the Aegean, allowing space for farms that grow the famous Santorini tomatoes and vineyards for sought-after Santorini wine.

Unsurprisingly, this stunning scenery is a powerful magnet for tourists. Millions arrive by ferry or plane every year, far outstripping the permanent population. The strain on infrastructure is visible every time a ferry arrives at the recently redeveloped, but still fairly small, port on the west side of the island. One two-lane road zig-zags up the cliff, and tourists in buses and vans creep up and down the switchbacks during the busiest hours in high season. The island’s economy is more than just geared toward tourism; with the exception of some agricultural products (the wine and tomatoes I mentioned above), the economy is tourism.

The result of this is jarring. Rather than suburban sprawl, Santorini has hotel sprawl. Its main settlements have expanded far beyond the capacity of the local population to support them, with hotel after hotel constructed a few yards back from the western cliff face.

Santorini was once a fairly quaint and quiet island with a population level in line with its natural resources and geography. It is certainly not that any more. The natural beauty of the island, which made it an attractive destination in the first place, is being overwhelmed by the self-sustaining tourism industry. People go to Santorini because it’s a cool place to go, with fancy restaurants and swanky hotels–the island itself, despite its historical and geological importance, is an afterthought.

This is what can happen to places of natural beauty if they are not protected. For American readers, imagine if the Grand Canyon were not a national park: there would be Econo Lodges, Applebees’, and Holiday Inns lining the North and South Rims. There would be a McDonald’s on the bank of the Colorado River. For Brits, think of a Premier Inn on Scafell Pike or a Gregg’s in the North York Moors. France would have a Carrefour on Mont Blanc and an Ibis in the Mont-Saint-Michel. The examples can go on and on. If governments do not protect places of natural beauty or historical importance, someone will try to make a buck, a pound, or a euro by selling something there.

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