This post is from the Destination Stewardship Report (Summer 2022, Volume 3, Issue 1), an e-quarterly publication that provides practical information and insights useful to anyone whose work or interests involve improving destination stewardship in a post-pandemic world.
A home goes up in flames as a devastating wildfire tears through Northern Evia. Natural disasters such as these are becoming increasingly frequent. [Photo courtesy of Dimitris Georgiou]
Disaster Recovery in Evia, Greece
After disastrous wildfires in Northern Evia, Greece, the placemaking agency Toposophy assessed the damage to Evia’s tourism and researched lessons learned from various other disaster-struck destinations. Marta Mills of Toposophy explains what they have done to help Evia build a sustainable recovery and how other destinations can benefit.
Fire despoils a Greek island. Now what?
‘I will never forget the sound of the fire and the picture afterwards of the place where I grew up and live’, said Giorgos Maroudes, president of the Trade Association of Rovies, a seaside village on the island of Evia. In August 2021, Northern Evia – the northern part of Greece’s second largest island, Evia, and a place of unique biodiversity – suffered one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. “As expected, tourism, one of the most important revenue sources of our area, was one of the sectors most heavily impacted,” he reported.
Toposophy, an international placemaking agency and GSTC Member, was hired by the National Reconstruction Committee of Greece on the Recovery and Regeneration of Northern Evia (the NRC) to provide a roadmap for a sustainable recovery adapted to the characteristics of the place and based on an analysis of the responses from other destinations who have experienced natural disasters.
‘The scale of the disaster was unprecedented in our history, so the NRC was a unique initiative in the country’s planning tradition’, says Dimitrios Georgiou from Toposophy, responsible for research and managing the Northern Evia project. ‘The response had to be bigger, more holistic and more people-centered than had been seen before.’
Pre-fire, a diver in Rovies explores north Evia’s rich biodiversity and marine life. [Photo courtesy of Argonauta Diving Resort]
Understanding what has worked and what hasn’t in the past was essential to develop a plan adjusted to Northern Evia’s unique characteristics and needs. During its heyday, Northern Evia was a popular holiday destination for global stars such as Maria Callas and Greta Garbo, mainly because of the thermal spa. Evia also has a rich history and heritage spanning from ancient to medieval times and present, as well as unique biodiversity and local production that remained under-utilized.
In addition to the wildfire’s impact (e.g. destruction of forests, historic olive groves, honey production, livestock, etc.), further challenges included lack of distinct brand/identity, population decline, and negative effects of the pandemic.
To respond in the most effective way, Toposophy’s team conducted a benchmarking study and spent a few weeks in Northern Evia to conduct formal and informal interviews and check what would work in this particular place. This engagement on the ground and stakeholder input helped with creating the final study. The subsequent benchmarking research would help Northern Evia to recover.
Responses by other destinations
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, it typically takes an average of 16.2 months for a destination to recover from a natural disaster; however, wildfires can take anything from just one month to 93 months. Toposophy’s benchmarking research found that successful responses vary from dedicated strategic plans and funding structures to location-specific initiatives undertaken by community groups and local influencers. For example,
In response to the wildfires of 2020 in Oregon, Global Family Travels, in partnership with First Nature Tours and Cascade Volunteers, launched experiences of regenerative tourism in areas of Oregon that suffered the most, while the destination created conditions of safety by providing an interactive dashboard with information about the air quality etc. after a customer survey.
Following the earthquake of 2015, Nepal developed an efficient social media strategy that targeted a more adventurous group of visitors and replaced the negative sentiment with a more optimistic one, as well as a “see for yourself” strategy by organizing press and celebrity trips.
In Italy, after the earthquake of 2012 in Emiglia Romana, the influential chef Massimo Bottura created a special risotto cacio e pepe recipe with parmigiano during a livestream session that helped to sell a stock of 360 thousand pieces of parmigiano cheese. The relaunch of All Saints’ Day Festival with the support of volunteers also helped drive tourists flows and demonstrate a destination which is ready for business.
The tsunami of 2004 was an opportunity for Sri Lanka to rethink its strategy, target markets, and offerings, and subsequently, separate the destination in tourism zones. The destination created packages for added-value niche groups, while launching the “Bounce Back Sri Lanka” campaign directing visitors to areas not affected by the tsunami.
Guidelines for a destination affected by natural disaster
Based on the benchmarking analysis and many formal and informal consultations on the ground with local stakeholders, Toposophy provided actionable guidelines adapted to the conditions of Northern Evia. Some of these recommendations included:
Develop new inventory of nature-based tourism products as well as tourism based on assets not affected by the disaster, such as sea and gastronomy experiences.
Launch a domestic tourism campaign with a well-rounded events calendar to highlight the readiness of the destination for business.
Develop a place brand through participatory processes – important for recovery and resilience building.
Provide an educational program with tailor-made consulting and peer-to-peer elements to upgrade quality and effectiveness of crisis response, and to increase social cohesion and resilience to future shocks.
Develop programs to tap into new trends or niche groups such as a pilot program for attracting digital nomads and reuse of abandoned industrial heritage, along with wider placemaking goals such as reversing demographic shrinkage.
Northern Evia’s lush, green landscape – before the fire. [Photo courtesy of Dimitris Georgiou]
Hope for the future
According to Giorgos Maroudes of the seaside village Rovies, “The wildfires highlighted precedent weaknesses. The reconstruction requires both short- and long-term measures and planning for a quick recovery and enhanced resilience. The Toposophy study shows that this is feasible, based on successful practices from all over the world.”
What can other destinations learn from this?
The key takeaways that other destinations can apply include:
The involvement of the local community is crucial for the effectiveness of recovery efforts. Transparency and honesty are very important to nurture trust.
Tourism recovery efforts should be combined with other dimensions such as restoring biodiversity and cultural heritage.
The effectiveness of communication initiatives depends on a mix of factors such as the message carrier (e.g. influencers related to the area affected or a real visitor), the communication timing, and the tone/content of message (honesty, safety, positive news, progress).
Regarding recent disasters, perceived safety from the COVID-19 pandemic has been more important when selecting a destination than the impact of a natural disaster.
Data-driven approaches that may include customer perception surveys, social listening, and local professional consultation enhance effectiveness and well-informed decisions.
Educational initiatives such as seminars, toolkits, and/or consultation increase resilience and create competitive advantage.
Talking about disaster response
We can all learn more from other places willing to share their experiences. For example, the mayor of San Jose has some useful insights on a new community task force that is tackling the climate crisis in California, and we can learn from scientists in Australia how to use the data from past bushfires to better prepare for future hazards. Toposophy’s Common Ground podcast series (Episode 3 ‘Climate Fight: Meet the Frontliners’) tackles the topic of how these destinations cope with natural disasters.
About the Author
Toposophy’s Marta Mills is a sustainable tourism and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience in projects across Europe and Asia.