Climate change has pushed Europe's vulnerable coastlines to the top of the environmental agenda. Protecting these endangered ecosystems will require countries to rethink their approach to coastal tourism.
Europeans are loving their coastlines to death
The beach vacation has become a sacred part of summer for many European families. But environmental groups warn that Europeans love their coastlines to death. Recent decades have seen unchecked beach-side development that has led to a situation that is unsustainable.
Europe's fragile coastal ecosystems have reached an environmental "point of no return," according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). They are under dual assault from tourism and global warming.
The threats cannot be separated from each other. Climate change will bring increased flooding, erosion, storms and heat waves. A healthy coastline acts as a natural buffer against extreme weather. But in most places, the buffer has been built over. Houses, hotels and entire cities are smothering the coasts.
Today, more than 50 percent of the Mediterranean coastline is dominated by concrete, according to the EEA. High-rise hotels and manufactured beaches have replaced wetlands as Mediterranean communities have sought to cash in on tourists in search of a beach holiday.
Unchecked Mediterranean development
Portugal has one of the fastest rates of costal development in Europe
The fastest costal development in the past decade has happened in western Mediterranean countries such as Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece.
"If you look at the Mediterranean, it's unsustainable," said Walter Kreiken, a researcher for the EUCC, an association based in the Netherlands which promotes costal conservation and research into costal issues.
The European Union has put "integrated costal-zone management" guidelines into place, making coastal conservation a top priority for the 27-member bloc. Yet the EU can only do so much. While individual countries such as Britain and Sweden have taken the lead in conserving their coastlines, that's not happening everywhere, Kreiken said. In southern Europe, developers continue to push for golf courses and large hotels in areas where there simply isn't enough water.
Finding the right balance
At the heigh of Italy's tourist season, you won't be alone on the beach
Yet plenty of less-developed Mediterranean tourist destinations are trying to avoid becoming the next Mallorca, the Spanish island often cited as an example of a hideously over-built mass-tourism destination.
Croatia, Turkey and Malta are seen as European costal destinations that still have the potential to achieve an "equilibrium between local development, habitat protection and landscape quality," according to the EEA.
Sustainable and responsible tourism have become mantras for some. Croatia, for example, aims to "develop quality tourism, not mass tourism," said Blanka Belosevic, head of the Balkan state's tourism department.
The country has the fastest tourism growth rate in Europe, 17.4 during the past decade, according to statistics from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). German families, who flocked to the Balkan country before the violent breakup of Yugoslavia turned it into a war zone in the early 1990s, still make up the largest chunk of the 7.5 million European visitors.
Croatia seeks to control boom
Countries want to avoid becoming the next Mallorca
There's no denying what brings people to the country: A full 87 percent of the tourism in Croatia is concentrated along its coastline between June and September. And that presents problems.
"We are lucky not to be in the situation of some other Mediterranean countries that have destroyed their coasts," Belosevic said in an interview with DW-WORLD.DE on the sidelines of a recent UNWTO meeting in Cartagena, Colombia.
The goal of Belosevic's department is to distribute tourism over a larger area of the country during more months of the year, taking pressure off the coasts.
"We want to develop cultural tourism which will pull people off the beach and engage them in something else," she said.
Croatia wants to preserve its coasts
Croatia's tourism department is developing routes for hiking, biking and for wine enthusiasts as well as spa and wellness options. Instead of issuing permits for 15-story hotels on the beach, loans are being offered to families to renovate their historic homes to offer bed and breakfast-style accommodations.
Still, Croatia's coasts remain under pressure, with cases of illegal construction, habitat degradation and forest fires attributed to tourism.