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Caroline Kutek, an American tourist, recently culminated a guided exploration of Greece’s most esteemed archaeological treasure, the Acropolis. Her journey immersed her in the ancient aura of this iconic landmark, a testament to Greece’s rich historical tapestry.

The architectural grandeur of the Acropolis, a monument over 2,500 years old, is a sight to behold. But as one visitor recently remarked, the throng of eager tourists jostling for space in the shadows of this ancient wonder is just as striking – and for some, quite a cause for vexation.

“Overwhelming” is how a 30-year-old customer service operator described the atmosphere during her recent June visit. Her frustrations were not with the monument itself but with the size of the crowd and the winding queues extending up the hill to the attraction, a scene which she observed was increasingly commonplace.

Echoing these sentiments, Australian sales assistant Jackie Zachary stated, “Too many people for my liking. I did not expect this many people in June, thinking July would be peak and busier.” Her surprise at the unexpected crowd volume underscores the escalating popularity of the Acropolis as a must-visit tourist spot.

Statistics from the Greek state organization for the management of cultural resources (ODAP) reveal a surge in visitor numbers. An astounding 14,000 people explored the Acropolis in May, marking a 70 percent increase from 2022. According to ODAP chairman Ilias Patsarouhas, from April onwards, average daily visits rivaled those of the previous August, traditionally the peak month in Greece’s tourism season.

This escalating wave of tourism is in step with a global resurgence in leisure travel demand. The revival of Greece’s tourism industry to pre-pandemic levels has been fast-tracked, helped by an earlier than usual start to the tourist season.

Despite leveraging an online “fast pass”, one visitor, Kutek, and her family endured a 15-minute wait before entering. At the peak of the site, the congestion exacerbated as everyone tried to merge into a single queue, which she lamented as the worst part of the experience.

Visitors to the Acropolis must navigate a two-part queueing system. After purchasing their ticket at the entrance, they join another line to climb the stairs of the Propylaea, the gateway of the sanctuary dedicated to the ancient Greek goddess Athena.

World Heritage Watch (WHW), a non-governmental organization working with UNESCO to safeguard sites of global significance, has expressed concern over the apparent lack of a visitor management plan at the Acropolis, a requirement under the UN watchdog’s World Heritage Convention.

According to WHW chair Stephan Doempke, the Acropolis has been grappling with “over-tourism” for years and is now at risk. The site’s status and preservation are compromised, he warns, without a proper management plan or a strategy to handle the influx of tourists.

Such congestion at the Propylaea can become so severe that security guards are forced to intervene, temporarily halting the flow of visitors, reveals Patsarouhas. The situation can escalate further with the arrival of passengers from cruise ships that dock at the port of Piraeus, particularly during this time of year.

The allure of the Acropolis, steeped in ancient Greek mythology and history, continues to draw tourists worldwide. However, as these crowd numbers grow, so does the pressing need for a comprehensive management plan to ensure the preservation of this iconic heritage site.

In circumstances where between two and three thousand visitors descend upon the Acropolis simultaneously, wait times can swell to over an hour, reveals veteran guard Ioannis Mavrikopoulos, a dedicated custodian of the Acropolis for the past three decades. Mavrikopoulos highlights a pervasive issue: a chronic shortage of staff at archaeological sites nationwide, a predicament that reaches a “dramatic” pitch on the Greek islands.

Indeed, the management of the Acropolis has been embroiled in controversy over the past few years. A flashpoint was the Culture Ministry’s approval of restoration work at the site, which incorporated the construction of a new concrete walkway. While the ministry argued that the redesign enhances wheelchair accessibility and minimizes accident risks, critics were not convinced.

Stephan Doempke, the Chair of World Heritage Watch, a non-profit working with UNESCO to safeguard heritage sites, argues that such upgrades are “totally irresponsible” as they seem intended to bolster tourist numbers.

To mitigate the mounting pressure from the influx of tourists, the Culture Ministry is plotting a time slot system to distribute visitor flow throughout the day. ODAP Chairman Ilias Patsarouhas confirms that this will be rolled out by the end of June. However, the site’s guards fear that implementing such a system mid-season could complicate their responsibilities further. Mavrikopoulos insists that such changes should occur post-tourist season to avoid chaos and confusion.

In the grander scheme, Greece is banking on tourism as a key vehicle to drive its economic recovery following a near-decade-long debt crisis. The aim is to outstrip the record-breaking 31.3 million arrivals seen in 2019. Yet, as they scramble to capitalize on the tourist boom, it’s clear that the challenge of balancing heritage conservation with the demands of an eager global audience continues to cast a long shadow over the Acropolis.

 With AFP

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