CORFU, GREECE — English novelist Edward Lear, who wintered on Corfu in the mid-19th century, was ecstatic about the island's beauty, "the blue of the sky and ivory of church and chapel, the violet of mountain rising from peacock-wing hued sea."
Today he'd probably not recognize the place.
Corfu was one of the first Greek islands to embrace mass tourism in the 1960s. Much of its coastline is now a dismal swath of concrete hotels catering to cheap package tours from Britain and Ireland. Bays and beaches are smothered by sprawling, disheveled holiday camps, where binge drinking appears a popular activity.
"If anyone wants to illustrate the unacceptable face of Greek tourism," one guidebook declares, "it is to Corfu that they look."
Tourists from around the globe are loving the Mediterranean to death. The sea is the most popular tourist destination in the world, attracting over 200 million tourists a year, nearly one-third of the world's total tourist flow, up from 58 million in 1970. While that's an economic boon for many coastal communities, it's also turning into an environmental nightmare, as more and more of the basin's natural coastline vanishes to make way for hotels, marinas, and cruise-ship ports.
"If we follow this trend, there will be no natural spaces left by the end of the century. The whole coast will be urbanized," says Lucien Chabason, coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme's Mediterranean Action Program in Athens.
The Mediterranean suffers from many acute environmental problems, most tied to the region's large and growing population. The cradle of Western civilization, the living sea has taken a beating since Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East industrialized.
Half the region's wastewater is dumped into the sea untreated, triggering algae blooms that suffocate marine animals by consuming oxygen dissolved in the seawater. Much of the Middle East's oil is shipped across the Mediterranean and 600,000 tons a year is spilled into the sea, mostly from the illegal cleaning of ships' tanks. Many commercial fish species are declining because of overfishing and the loss of underwater habitat.
To make matters worse, large stretches of seafloor have been smothered by a bizarre mutant seaweed from the tropical Pacific. When first found outside a Monaco aquarium in 1984, caulerpa taxifolia covered a few square feet and was considered a scientific curiosity. But the seaweed spreads by cloning a new plant grows quickly from the tiniest fragment of an old one, allowing it to spread from harbor to harbor on boat anchors and fishing gear.
Today the caulerpa covers more than 50 square miles of the Mediterranean seafloor in a thick green carpet that's smothered native bottom habitat from Tunisia to Croatia. It's toxic to most marine life, and was recently discovered growing in lagoons in southern California.
"For the Mediterranean Sea it is too late. It can never be eradicated," says Alexandre Meinesz, professor of biology at the University of Nice at Sophia Antipolis in France, who first alerted the scientific community to the seaweed's threat. "All of the [near-shore] areas of the Mediterranean will be more or less invaded by this species."
But environmentalists see the spread of coastal development as an even more serious threat.
"As more and more of the coastline is covered in concrete, you have more flooding and worse water pollution in the adjacent sea," says Michael Scoullos, an environmental chemist at the University of Athens who heads a coalition of Mediterranean environmental groups. If resorts aren't planned well and many are not then more tourists means more pollution, he adds.
Tourism is a major industry in much of the Mediterranean, providing jobs and income for islands and remote coastal areas with limited alternatives. But poorly planned tourism developments can do economic harm as well.
"Basically, tourists are looking for clean beaches, nice landscapes, and pleasant sea bottoms," says Paolo Lombardi, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature's Rome-based Mediterranean program.
"If you overexploit an area, the well-heeled tourists go away and you start getting package tours, with less and less income generated," Mr. Lombardi says, noting that the majority of the money spent by the average package tourist never leaves northern Europe, winding up in the hands of travel agents and foreign resort owners.
The view from many of Corfu's eyesore high-rise hotels hints at what the island must have looked like a century ago.
Albania's mountainous coastline is visible across a few miles of water, its sloping shores still covered in trees. While Corfu thumps to the rhythms of its many discos, the Albanian shore is quiet. A narrow road links a few simple farming villages with Saranda, a sleepy, dilapidated town with big tourism aspirations.
"You can see there's not as much happening as in Corfu," Saranda tour guide Vasil Barka says wistfully as tourists gawk at one of the countless dome-shaped bunkers built by Albania's communist regime. "But we have big plans for the future."
In places like Saranda, sustainable environment and sustainable tourism could go hand in hand, but it requires careful planning, says Mr. Chabason of UNEP. Most new development will take place in poorer countries like Albania, Tunisia, and Turkey. Those locales don't have the money and expertise to identify and protect ecologically important areas like wetlands or seabird nesting sites, or to put effective zoning laws in place.
International cooperation, he argues, is essential to protecting what's left of the coast and the marine life that depends on it. But that's not so easy.
Since 1975, the 20 countries of the region have been working together to reduce oil spills and build new wastewater-treatment plants through UNEP's Mediterranean Action Program. In the past 10 years, the proportion of the region's wastewater that's treated has increased from a third to a half, and oil spills are less frequent.
But cooperation tends to stop at the water's edge. "Unfortunately, when it comes to coastal development, there are no regional protocols, conventions, and agreements. It's considered a national issue," Chabason says. "In most countries, the tourism industry is very powerful and there's very little [the international community] can do."