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What to Know About the "Beach Towel Revolt" Returning Greek Beaches

Throughout Greece, local residents are taking matters into their own hands by throwing towels to reclaim their beaches and access to nature without hefty expenses.

It was around sunset on Sunday, September 3rd, on Paros, a popular resort island in the Cyclades region of Greece. A crowd of about 50 people gathered on Parikia Beach, not far from the main port of the island. Behind them, the sky above the azure sea was glowing with a dark orange hue. On one side, the famous Cycladic windmill stood out sharply on the horizon. On the other side, along the sand, stretched a row of sunbeds belonging to a beach bar.

Even if you've never been to Greece, some elements of this scene may seem familiar to you. However, on this day, there were some unusual details. Three of the people present held a large sign that read "Give Back the Beach." Next to them was a man with a loudspeaker. In front of the audience, he recited parts of the Greek constitution, which state that beaches and other natural areas belong to the country's citizens.

The protest was part of a campaign dubbed the "beach towel revolt," in which local residents are demanding free access to beaches that have been taken over by beach bars and other businesses charging exorbitant prices for sun loungers and umbrellas. While the movement began on Paros, it has now spread throughout Greece and even into neighboring Turkey, with activists demanding a place to lay their towels for free.

BBC Travel spoke with campaign activists and local residents to find out what the protests are about, why they are important, and what this movement means for both travelers and locals.

How Did the Protests Begin?

Protests began on Paros in May 2023 when a group of residents, who had been regularly meeting to discuss environmental issues on the island, started talking about the dwindling places where people could swim and sunbathe without being forced to pay for loungers. This is one symptom of the island increasingly catering to tourists at the expense of local residents.

Beach businesses that set up sun loungers and umbrellas are required to apply for a license from the Greek Ministry of Finance to use specific portions of the beach. Inspections are supposed to be conducted regularly to ensure they don't occupy more space than their licenses permit. However, protesters claim that such inspections are rare (if they happen at all). As a result, there are now few free spaces for towels.

Residents created a Facebook page called "Save Paros Beaches" and began organizing demonstrations, calling for the suppression of these private operators. They also used drone footage to document illegal sunbeds, comparing their location to the designated areas. "This changed the game because the level of lawlessness was so clearly visible," said local resident Nicholas Stefanou. He said the group found spots where sunbeds and umbrellas occupied ten times more space than allowed.

Where Have the Protests Spread?

The movement quickly gained momentum; the September 3rd demonstration marked the beginning of a new nationwide campaign, and it was the first time multiple protests against beach towels occurred in different regions of Greece on the same day.

Demonstrations took place on the neighboring island of Naxos and the southern island of Crete. Recently, Rhodes and Aegina islands, as well as Attica – the state where Athens is located – have joined the cause. The protest location on Paros is particularly symbolic; being the main beach in the island's central village, it is the most popular place for locals to swim after work.

Why Are These Protests Important?

Many Greeks still suffer financially from the debt crisis that hit the country over a decade ago and cannot afford to pay for sun loungers every time they visit the beach. The sun and the sea are essential parts of Greek culture: the blue color on the Greek flag symbolizes the Aegean Sea, and most Greeks have vivid childhood memories of summers spent at the beach.

However, campaign participants say that the beaches are just one part of a more significant struggle. Greece is one of Europe's top vacation destinations, and protesters addressed the gathered crowds, stating that excessive tourism – and the associated social and environmental issues – must be addressed.