Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Thursday delivered an address at an international conference entitled “The Next 50: The Future of World Heritage in Challenging Times, Enhancing Resilience and Sustainability”. The conference is being held at the eponymous Delphi site in south-central Greece.
The two-day event is organized by the country’s culture ministry in association with UNESCO, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention’s adoption in 1972.
In an announcement, UNESCO stated that the aim of the conference is “…to present critical factors of our times that affect cultural and natural monuments, worldwide, and the potential of the World Heritage Convention to contribute to their identification and mitigation,” as well as to focus on climate change and sustainable tourism.
Mitsotakis inaugurated the conference in the presence of UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azouley.
The conference comes in the wake of a growing instrumentalization of world heritage monuments for political expediencies.
The most egregious example is the Erdogan regime’s July 2020 reconversion of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople from a museum into a mosque.
UNESCO has pledged to send experts to inspect the greatest of all basilicas of eastern Christendom in order to determine whether the incomparable monument will be declared in a threatened state.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended and spoke at the international conference “The Next 50: The Future of World Heritage in Challenging Times, Enhancing Resilience and Sustainability”, organized in Delphi by the Ministry of Culture and Sports in collaboration with UNESCO, on the occasion of the 50 years from the signing of the Convention on the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
The whole speech follows:
“Madam Director-General, Minister, Dear Ambassador Marianna Vardinogianni, dear Governor, dear Prefect, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure for me personally, and it is also, dear Audrey, a special honour for Greece, to celebrate this 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention here in Delphi today.
After all, it was to Delphi and its oracle that people all over the ancient world came to hear prophecies, to be told what fortune or tragedy lay in wait, and to receive wisdom on how to respond. And if I may add another thought, the oracle proved extremely resilient by never giving very exact answers to the questions people asked. Fast forward two-and-a-half-millennia to this summer, and we all clearly saw, here, very close to Delphi again, a warning. A warning of the future that could be in store if we do not all listen and respond.
It came in the form of a fire that started in a village very close to here, just 15 kilometres from this site. It was ignited in a summer that was Europe’s hottest on record. It was stoked by high winds, it became a violent blaze that tore through the oldest and largest continuously cultivated olive grove in Greece. Initial estimates indicate that approximately 45,000 trees were destroyed. Fortunately, and as a result of the efforts of our fire services and the local municipalities, the fire was contained within a perimeter of 3,000 sq. meters, leaving the biggest part of the olive grove unscathed.
And I cannot think of a clearer example of how the preservation of our cultural monuments and the preservation of our natural heritage are part of one and the same effort. And it was exactly this groundbreaking insight that the World Heritage Convention enshrined in 1972, when it was created in Paris. And for the first time, an internationally legally recognised document made the link between nature conservation on the one hand, and the preservation of human cultural heritage on the other.
Since then it has proven to be the bedrock upon which international co-operation regarding all kinds of heritage conservation have been built. It shaped a common understanding of what protection means and has been the foundation for new institutions, new procedures, new action. It has provided a banner to which all conservation expertise could rally.
Greece has been actively participating since 1981 when it was again a New Democracy government that ratified this valuable Treaty, with the signature of another Mitsotakis, that of my late Father Constantine Mitsotakis, who at the time was Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic.
And I think that in the decades that followed, Greece, all Greek governments have played a central role in the Convention, having been elected to the World Heritage Committee, and now participating in this closed group of states that choose the cultural items and monuments to be listed.
All the more so, given that of some 1,154 monuments from 167 countries are now protected, 18 of those are here in Greece. And these cultural treasures span the entire country from the Acropolis of Athens and the Byzantine monuments of Thessaloniki to medieval Rhodes and the medieval city of Mystras. From Mount Athos, the cave of Apocalypse in Patmos to Meteora, the ancient town of Corfu. Hopefully soon this list will include the ancient Minoan palaces of Crete and, of course, the area of Zagori.
The same of course goes for our most cherished archaeological sites – Delos, Olympia, Vergina, Mycenae, Filippi, and of course, here in Delphi, the place the ancients considered to be the “navel of the Earth”.
As you probably all know, according to mythology, when Zeus wanted to identify, to locate the centre of the earth, he let two eagles fly –one from the west, one from the east- and they are said to have passed each other over this beautiful and evocative landscape.
So, I think you made the right choice, dear Audray, this is the ideal place to celebrate the significant contribution of the World Heritage Convention. The contribution that it has made not just to the preservation of listed monuments and our natural environment, but also to the mapping of dangers threatening them both at a local, at a regional, but also at a global scale.
And now, fifty years since its inception, and with the global community facing new and urgent challenges, we need to ask ourselves how to deliver on the Convention’s fundamental principles, and what kind of vision we really have for the next fifty years. How will we face new threats, and also how we respond to ones we are sadly all too familiar with, for example, the recent desecration of a monument that is very close to our heart, and I’m referring to Hagia Sophia.
Events there, at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, are a sad and provocative retreat from the humanity that the World Heritage Convention represents. It is unacceptable, as we try to move forward in a united way and attempt to build a better and brighter future for all of us, that there are those who instead try to turn us back to divisions of the past.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy that this conference is going to be focusing on two threats. Two threats we already know are affecting our cultural and natural heritage. Two factors that we expect will have a decisive impact in the near future – I am referring to the climate crisis on the one hand and to overtourism on the other hand.
In Greece, since our government came to power, we have made fighting the consequences of climate change -both on the mitigation and on the adaptation front- an absolute priority. And, as a result, Greece now has an autonomous Ministry for Climate Crisis and Civil Protection, and with the collaboration -the strong collaboration- of the Ministry of Culture, it is tasked with protecting our monuments from the threats that they face.
Extreme temperatures, heavy rainfall, rising sea levels, erosion, severe weather events resulting in floods, landslides, of course wildfires – we saw that happening right here in Delphi. These are threats that have major impact, not just on the monuments themselves, but also on the environment, on the landscape, on the local communities that support the preservation of these sites.
And we have been implementing – as the Minister mentioned – for three-and-a-half years now, a very detailed plan on how to protect all our archeological sites, placing particular emphasis on those that are on the UNESCO List. The plan for the Acropolis is practically complete. We are using funds from the EU Recovery Fund to provide flood protection, for example at Dion and Malia, fire protection at Philippi and Mystras. And of course, we are taking measures to avoid landslides and rockfalls right here at Delphi. These are very complicated and very expensive projects, but they are necessary in order to make sure that we protect these unique sites.
This is a programme that exceeds €100,000,000 in total. And as part of our strategy last year we cleared thousands of acres of forest around archaeological sites. We have targeted surveillance systems and we have been much more effective in limiting the damage of wildfires across the country. We’ve had very very good results as a result of placing more emphasis on the protection of the entire territory, and of course archaeological sites, when it comes to the threats of wildfires. And of course, for us, as I mentioned, the green transition is a non-negotiable priority.
Regardless of the current geopolitical turmoil -maybe, in spite of it- we actually realise that moving towards a future that is powered from renewable energy is a wise choice not simply from a climate perspective, but also from an economic and a geopolitical perspective. We never again want to be dependent on certain countries to provide us with valuable energy.
And that’s why Greece is currently ranked 8th in the world in the utilisation of renewable energy. A month ago, it was a day -very similar to the day we have today, it was sunny and windy- and we managed to power the entire country, for five hours our entire electricity consumption was provided from renewable energy.
We actually see quite a few wind turbines in the broader area, and we know that sometimes it is complicated to find the right places to place them because they clearly cannot interfere with protected landscapes. At the same time, they are the future and we all know that we need to move towards a more substantial penetration of renewables in order to cover all our energy needs.
And of course, the second challenge was also referred to by the Minister – it is the challenge of overtourism. And if we are to protect these cherished monuments, make sure we pass them on to the next generation, we need to take the challenge very very seriously. And we know for example that poorly managed access can only damage our cherished monuments, but it can also have a social impact on the people who live around them. It can damage the infrastructure they rely on and it can degrade fragile ecosystems, robbing wildlife of their natural habitat.
Let me give you an example. This is why in Santorini -which is a very unique island during the high season- we have actually set a limit to the daily number of visitors, as well as the number of cruise ships permitted to approach it. These are not easy decisions, but they are absolutely necessary. And we will not refrain from taking these type of decisions to make sure that we don’t risk our sites be completely overrun by tourists and essentially placing short term benefit -which sometimes isn’t even that substantial- over the long term viability and protection of these very unique sites, these very unique ecosystems.
We need to take similar measures also anticipating future tourist flows will come. That is why we have placed particular emphasis on making sure that all our important archeological sites – 28 at present – have now electronic ticketing. They account for 90% of tourists’ visits. This is important because it also allows us to monitor and better manage the flow of tourists, apart from offering an obvious convenience to those who don’t need to stand in line to purchase a ticket.
We also need to make sure that we extend our tourism season and make other sites more accessible. Greece is full of interesting places one can visit. And it is sometimes a pity that visitors to this very special place in Delphi don’t take the time to explore the broader area. Look at the mountain Parnassos, right above Delphi. There are not many places in the world – I can tell you – where you can, for example, ski in April and then take the car in half an hour and will be swimming in the sea.
These are very unique experiences that go beyond the sites themselves but open up a new potential to also a new type of tourism that is focused on sustainability. What I can tell you, dear Audrey, is that we will not compromise, we will not cut any corners when it comes to protecting our natural and cultural environment, as we develop our tourism product.
And we understand that the market is also pushing us in this direction. And that any other choice would be an economic mistake but also a mistake that we cannot afford to make, given the importance of protecting our cultural heritage in the history of the country but also the importance we assign to it as part of our long-term growth strategy.
And talking of natural beauty, it is in this pristine location of Delphi which constantly reminds us that only through showing respect for our natural habitat can the works of humans survive through the centuries.
Delphi essentially is an ark. At the same time it is a compass that transcends human values, guiding us towards a more sustainable future.
And let me conclude, ladies and gentlemen, with one more observation showing how our human history, our place and our global future are intrinsically bound.
In the Aegean Sea to the east of here lies the island of Delos, another Greek UNESCO site, where the God Apollo and his twin sister Artemis were born. Today the entire island is an open museum housing ancient monuments that have already been affected by the Climate Crisis and rising sea levels.
But three years from now a NASA rocket, bearing the name of Artemis will take the first woman to the moon breaking new boundaries for humankind and bringing us new hope and so – on that note – I can, I feel I really should leave you with this hope that in another fifty years we can come back to this place and show how with the principles of the World Heritage Convention in our heart we overcame the great challenges of our time and created a better future for all of us.
Thank you very much for your attention.”