Páros with its white-washed villages, iconic blue-domed churches, harbors fringed with lively tavernas and sun-drenched beaches, embodies all the hallmarks of a quintessential Cyclades island.
However, one glaring issue seems to mar this otherwise idyllic destination: the lack of ample space for beachgoers to enjoy its sandy shores - without forking over anything between €40 and €120 for the privilege.
Amidst Greece's relentless summer heatwave, locals and tourists have been flocking to the coastline, yearning for a spot to cool down. Yet, securing a place to unwind has grown increasingly challenging due to the encroachment of commercial operators who have seized control of many public beach areas, monopolizing them with pricey sun loungers available for hire.
This practice has created a stark contrast between the natural beauty of Páros' beaches and the commercial exploitation that restricts access to them. It not only kills the buzz of a beach day but also undermines the very essence of these public spaces which should be open and accessible to all.
Fed up with the increasing privatization of Greece's beaches, locals are fighting back with a new campaign called the Towel Movement. This grassroots initiative aims to Greece's beaches for the public through demonstrations, essentially community gatherings, across its beaches. Campaigners show up with towels in hand, some with protest signs and others with leaflets, and aim to go for a swim in areas they claim have been unlawfully closed off to them.
They argue that unauthorized operators are taking advantage of tourists, charging sky-high prices to rent sun loungers and steadily claiming larger sections of public beaches for their loungers - far beyond the legally permitted limits.
Campaigners said in a statement: "We claim our right to public space, our right to enjoy our beaches that are encroached upon by greedy, socially irresponsible businessmen who occupy beaches in their entirety or exceed their limits by up to 100 times the area they legally lease."
By peacefully demonstrating and shedding light on the issue, campaigners hope to raise awareness among both locals and tourists alike. Their ultimate goal is to reclaim public spaces and restore them to the community, ensuring fair access for everyone.
Although Greek beaches are public property, local establishments like restaurants, bars, and hotels are permitted to lease segments of the shoreline. Regulations exist to define the maximum extent of the leased area - about 50% is supposed to remain unoccupied for people who do not wish to pay for special services - but residents claim these businesses are unlawfully expanding their occupied space.
Campaigners also argue that operators act like doormen, prohibiting access to those who refuse to pay by erecting fences that even cut off access to the sea.
"In some cases, they covered 100% of the beach," Nicolas Stephanou, a resident and campaigner in his 70s, told the New York Times. "We feel we're being pushed off the island."
The Save Paros group uncovered instances where one company charged tourists €60 (£51.68 / $65) for a day's rental of an umbrella and two sunbeds. For an eye-watering €120 (£103.36 / $131), visitors could access a 'VIP area' - which appears to mean little more than front-row access. Back-row access is reportedly about €40 (£31 / $44) for the day.
Members of Save Paros also claim that some public car parks have been taken over by beach clubs for their customers and the public are being denied entry.
A Greece-wide problem
The Facebook group Save The Beaches of Naxos Now comprises over seven thousand members and aims to highlight the challenges encountered by beachgoers on that island too. A member of the group recently posted an aerial photograph of Plaka Beach, a natural area safeguarded by stricter EU regulations. Designated as a Nature 2000 area, these regulations specify that private operators can only occupy 30% of the shoreline rather than the typical 50%. However, the shared photograph shows that sun lounge operators have significantly exceeded this boundary, blatantly disregarding the law. As a result, there is barely any free space available for non-fee-paying individuals to simply lay down their towels and enjoy the beach.
Last Wednesday, the Greek newspaper Hellas Posts reported that citizens had "rioted" on Naxos in response to the "delinquent behavior of beach bars" guaranteeing beach access to paying customers only.
What happens next?
Pressure from campaigners is starting to pay off. Two weeks after a protest on the small beach of Santa María in Paros, sun loungers disappeared from the shoreline and three beach bars closed down after an investigation concluded that the spaces the bars were occupying exceeded legal limits, according to local media.
It sounds promising but locals remain weary. According to the Guardian, sun loungers disappeared from Naxos' beach during inspectors' visits this month and then promptly reappeared upon their departure.
However, authorities are starting to react too. Greek minister of finance, Kostis Hatzidakis, pledged increased August inspections of beach bars to identify potential violations and impose sanctions if necessary. "We are not going to favor anyone," he said.
Speaking to the Greek radio station ERT, Paros' mayor, Markos Kovaios, said: "The problem is real. We want to solve it, and we will not allow arbitrariness on our island. We are reviewing the companies for a possible illegal occupation of part of the beach."
In the meantime, activists say they will continue to protest across Greece's beaches and raise awareness until stronger regulations are enforced.