Towel revolt: Greek activists rally to reclaim beach access for the public

Páros embodies all the hallmarks of a quintessential Cyclades island, featuring white-washed villages, iconic blue-domed churches, harbors fringed with lively tavernas, and sun-drenched beaches.

However, one thing it seemingly doesn’t have is enough 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 to cool down. Yet, securing a place to unwind has grown increasingly challenging due to commercial operators who have taken control of public beach zones with pricey sun loungers for hire.

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Beach-goers walk, lay and bathe on the Oceanis beach, as the area is covered by umbrellas and sun loungers
Oceanis beach near Athens has no space to throw down a towel as the area is covered by sun loungers © Spyros Bakalis / AFP / Getty Images

Towel Movement

Fed up, locals are fighting back with a new campaign called the Towel Movement or Beach Towel Revolt that aims to reclaim Greece’s beaches for the public through demonstrations across its beaches. 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 – more than they’re legally allowed to occupy.

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.”

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Holidaymakers relax at a beach bar in the small village of Piso Livadi
Holidaymakers relax at a beach bar in the small village of Piso Livadi © Shutterstock / Thirasia

Illegal occupation

Although Greek beaches are public, 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.

According to campaigners, private operators have taken over 20,000 square meters of beach in Paros for sun lounge hire this August – an area almost triple the size of the legally allowed 2,000 square meters granted to them. 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 in his 70s, told the New York Times. “We feel we’re being pushed off the island.”

The Save Paros Beaches group uncovered instances where a single 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 upgrade to the ‘VIP area’ – which appears to just mean front-row access. Back-row access is reportedly about €40 (£31 / $44) for the day.

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In this aerial view empty sun loungers line the beach at a resort on July 29, 2023 in Lardos, Rhodes, Greece.
An aerial view of sun loungers lining the sand in Lardos, Rhodes © Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

A Greece-wide problem

The issue isn’t confined to Paros, with the towel movement spreading to other islands that suffer from problems associated with mass tourism, including Naxos, Mykonos, Crete, Rhodes, and Santorini.

On Wednesday, the Greek newspaper Hellas Posts reported that citizens had “rioted” on Naxos in response to the “delinquent behavior of beach bars” guaranteeing access to the beach provided people purchased items from their businesses.

However, the 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 by the Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the spaces the bars were occupying exceeded legal limits.

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.

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But authorities are starting to react too. Hellenic Minister of Economy and 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.


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