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Using Renewable Energy as a Tool to Achieve Tourism Sustainability in Mediterranean Islands

Evanthie Michalena


This paper addresses the challenge of transforming Mediterranean islands into sustainable tourism areas, through the direct (or indirect) use of renewable energy projects and technologies. Through demonstration and a discussion of cases studies from studied islands, which takes into account island-specific characteristics and particularities, we assess the compatibility of renewable energy technologies (RETs) with sustainable tourism development. Conclusions emerge from this analysis which highlight prerequisites for RET-tourism compatibility; this has potential transferability to other insular territories.
Developing an appreciation of the factors that can lead to sustainable tourism in islands through the use of renewable energy is a priority issue for two main reasons. Firstly, because until now scientific literature has only discussed the question of photovoltaics’ integration into tourism buildings, and secondly, because of the relatively high vulnerability to climate change impacts of islands compared to many mainland areas, according to predictions made by the United Nations and the European Union. Whilst international politics deal with the mass reduction of gaseous emissions into the atmosphere, reducing the adverse effects of climate change in the islands has become a significant component of national priorities.

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1Globally, tourism activity increases at a rate of 3% to 4.5% annually and it is expected that tourism’s growth will raise revenues of about €1,500 billion per annum until 2010. Being the dominant industry at a global level (in terms of expenses and employees) [GEE and al., 1992], [Makens and Choy, 1989], tourism is currently considered to be an integral part of modern life, as well as an undeniable driver of economic development.
In the European Union, Mediterranean islands present the 2.2% of the internal European product and they attract the
30% of worldwide tourism (expected to be increased by 50% for the years to come [Dascalaki and Balaras, 2004]). Several different kinds of tourism are present in these islands as «destinations of luxury» (Santorini or Sardinia), or as «fun destinations» (Mykonos or Ios). However, the increasing intensity of some forms of tourism and the overexploitation of the natural resources can threaten tourism’s own existence at a local or island scale. Mass tourism, dominant in the majority of cases, is the prime contender which can lead to a degradation of natural landscapes, a lack of water provisions, coastal zone pollution, and the construction of massive transport and building infrastructures.
Islands are also exposed to
pressures encountered from climatic changes: even they if are not emitters of CO2, suffer from climatic change impacts more than mainland’s areas [Roper, 2005]. Their particular social, cultural, political and economical features [Codaccioni and Maistersheim, 1989] [George, 1987]), as well as the handicaps that islands present in their structure and development (such as small dimensions and geographic isolation, limited resources, insufficient productivity, competences and infrastructure, and ecological fragility), lead to an intensification of their vulnerability [article 158 of Amsterdam Treaty], [Χατζηθεοδωριδησ et al., 1996] [Howarth, 2002]. In the energy field, islands suffer from insufficiency of electricity transport interconnections (more than 50% of EU islands are not interconnected) as well as a high cost of energy feeding. On the other hand, islands are rich in abundant natural energy sources and they constitute the ideal regions for the demonstration of innovative energy projects.
Within this context, the concept of sustainable tourism was born. For the majority of scientists (see for example
[Holder, 1996], [Κοκκωσησ και Τσαρτασ, 2001]), this concept concerns an economic, social and environmental tourism development which aims at the continuous improvement of tourists’ everyday life. Other authors strongly argue that the sustainability of tourism’s development rely on the creation of particular characteristics of a tourism product which are in line with present and future tourists’ needs [Burns and Montalvillo Sancho, 2003]. This kind of development is an additional opportunity for the local communities to benefit from the products of their own local identity [Burns and Montalvillo Sancho, 2003], local natural resources included [BurnS and Holden, 1995].
Among these natural resources, scientific literature and practical case studies
suggest that the role of renewable energy should not be underestimated for tourism destinations ([Government of Barbados, 2001], [Best, 2002], [Fitzgerald, 2005]). On the contrary, the use of this energy in hotel infrastructure as well as in the construction of thematic parks is particularly welcome (see [KaragiorgaS et al., 2006] and [The Herald, 2002]).
In our analysis we will assess the compatibility between renewable energy sources and sustainable tourism development. Using some Mediterranean islands as case-studies, we will further suggest that renewable energy technologies (RETs) can be used as a leverage for this kind of tourism development.
Our methodology unfolds in two steps: firstly, we are discussing some cases of RETs integration in Mediterranean islands and secondly, we are discussing the results of our analysis. These results will reveal conditions under which compatibility between RETs and sustainable tourism development is possible. Such a compatibility was discussed in the past, but only as far as the integration of environmental technologies in the hotel sector is concerned [see for example [Fitzgerald, 2005] and [Karagiorgas et al., 2006]). Results will also argue that RETs can further promote the “sustainability” of a tourism destination.
The Mediterranean cases which will be examined, concern the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, Corsica, Crete, Milos, Skopelos and Gavdos.

Map 1 and 2. The geographic locations of the islands

Map 1 and 2. The geographic locations of the islands

1. Integration of RETs in Mediterranean islands

2From 1946, Sicily (see map 1) is an autonomous region of Italy and the biggest Mediterranean island (a surface of 25,799km2 and a local population of 5,100,000), situated in the southern part of Italy. Its economy is based mainly on agriculture, fishing, industries and tourism. During 1970s the island has suffered from the immigration of a large part of its population towards United States and Europe and therefore today’s Sicilian economy is not largely facilitated from local investments and entrepreneurship. Therefore, the island suffers an unemployment rate of 20% and a lack of specialized professionals.
From an energy point of view, 70% of electricity feeding is coming from fossil fuels and the 30% from renewable energies (mainly from hydroelectric plants). Nevertheless, the potential of renewable energies remains high, mainly for geothermy and thanks to the volcano Etna which is the largest volcano in Europe. This is why, in this island, full of areas characterized as UNESCO’s natural heritages, an innovative energy system has been undertaken and is worthwhile to be discussed:
A system of electricity produced from waves is tested in the Messina Strait since water density (and therefore energy production potential) is 800 times bigger that the one of wind, and energy coming from waves can be perfectly predicted (contrary to wind energy). For the moment, results are very encouraging and the system is considered to be even more profitable than the wind energy installations.
The pilot-project is used as a “demonstrative project” and attracts the worldwide attention and visits of scholars.

3Sardinia (see map 1) is an island of 24,090km2 and of 1,655,677 residents, which has gained the status of an «autonomous region» from Italy, since 1948. Its geological features are very important, since Sardinia’s geology is formed from some of the most ancient rocks in Europe. The climate is typically Mediterranean with mild temperatures. In 1994, the Magdalena archipelago with its 180km2 of coast, was classed as a sea park. As far as the island’s economy is concerned, the primary sector holds the 33% of the total economy, the secondary sector the 19% and the tertiary sector the 48%. The tertiary sector (mainly tourism activities) occupies the 60% of local man force. Tourism activities in Sardinia are responsible for the 7% of the National Internal Product, and therefore a variety of hotel complexes have been constructed in the southern part of the island in order to host approximately 10 millions of tourists per year; 80% of them in July and August. Although it has a diversity of economic activities, Sardinia suffers from a high rate of unemployment (approx 12%), mainly in the young population (approximately 22%) which leads to its immigration especially from the areas located in the centre of the island.
As far as the energy feeding of the island is concerned, and even if the majority of the island is fed from imported oil, a renewable energy plan was elaborated according the specific energy needs and energy resources of each area separately
. Therefore, it was after a study financed from European Union that the use of heating pumps has been decided for local residences, the biomass combustion for the heating of schools, offices and local residences, the solar energy for the tourism activities, illuminations, and greenhouses, the small wind generators for the energy feeding of local enterprises, farms, and camping infrastructures and the biofuels for transports. It is to be noted that the small wind generators attract the interest of local investors, since the investment cost is not high and the visual impacts are of an acceptable degree.
Furthermore, a synergy between thermal and hydroelectric plants is already in place
. In fact, water is partly used in order to regulate the electricity charge in the network and in order to maintain the maximum efficiency of thermal plants. During the night, when electricity demand is low, the supplementary electricity production, generated from thermal plants is used for pumping the water back into the reservoir.
Nevertheless, even if RETs are to conquer a large part of the local energy balance in Sardinia, the question of the further local awareness concerning these technologies remains important, mainly as far as their benefits for the local economy are concerned
. Towards this direction, information campaigns have been organised (both from State and private investors) concerning –for the moment- the expansion of solar thermal systems.

4Cyprus is an island near Turkey, Syria and Lebanon which hosts today 820,000 people and covers and area of 9,251km2. The island suffers from geopolitical problems, as in 1974 there was a Turkish armed invasion in its territories, resulting at the occupation of a strategically important part of the island -see map 2-. Through accession to the European Union in 2004, the Cypriot Republic benefits from the financial and legislative European support towards a sustainable energy management. Its intense geomorphologic elements, climate, local natural sources and local acceptance towards the introduction of new energy forms vary depending on the region. This is exactly why different energy local plans have been elaborated and different energy technologies have been proposed. In areas for example with fragile ecosystems and historical monuments, some «mild» interventions were chosen which would not create optical perturbances. In areas of luxury tourism attraction the idea of the use of solar vehicles in the golf terrains were launched, whereas in remote areas the combustion from biomass was promoted for the domestic use.

5Corsica is a French island, with an area of 8,680km2 which hosts 279,000 residents. The island holds a long and perturbed history. It also presents an altitude of 2,706 meters and 1000 km of coast. Rich in renewable energy sources as well as in protected natural areas, the island is often threatened from fires and as a consequence is seriously threatened from climatic changes. From a demographic point of view, the island has an unemployment rate of 10.6% (in 2002), but a well organized local governance (360 communities). Corsica has multiple airports and diversifies productive sectors, as follows: primary sector 5.3%, secondary sector 15.3% and tertiary sector 79.4%. The local entrepreneurial activity is very intense, often on a family and on a multiactivity basis. All these activities though don’t prevent from turning several Corsican areas empty of population. In this island of dispersed energy needs, a variety of renewable energy projects have been implemented (see map below).

6Some of these projects clearly contribute to the achievement of a sustainable tourism development, two examples follow: In 1998, a German company implemented the second wind energy park (wind energy park of Calenzana) on the island. The time that was necessary from the decision to the implementation was rather long (1998 – 2003), but today 10 wind generators of a total installed capacity of 6MW exist in the island and support the electricity peak loads (often observed during the tourism periods). It is to be noted here, that the total investment (more than 5M€) was not subsidized from the French government, and that due to the geomorphologic characteristics of the islands the transport of the material on site was rather difficult. Furthermore, an exhaustive dialogue has been launched between the company and the local society before the construction of the project due to prior bad experiences with the first wind park installed in the island, and to the immature French legislative framework; this, even if the land where the wind park was installed belongs to the local municipality. Today except from covering local needs with electricity, the wind park serves as a demonstration project to European students who attend the summer schools organized from the RET’s faculty of the Corte University [Universite de Corte, 2007].

7Another case which demonstrates the special attention being drawn at the preservation of Corsica’s natural and cultural sources is to be noted here: In 1967, the company Electricité de la France (EDF) has constructed a hydroelectric plant of 32MW (hydroelectric plant of Calacuccia) with a generated electricity of 120GWh a year, and of an overall cost of 160M€. The planning of the whole project was based mainly on technical criteria, and mainly on the hydraulic potential of the area, on the distance of water’s falling, as well as on the possibility to regulate energy outcome according local needs [Michalena, 2007]. During this planning though, a special attention has been awarded so as the project would be perfectly integrated in the exceptional surrounding environment of the island (through artificial colours and through a dam and cables attentively sculpted in the mountain). No malfunctioning problem has been reported since operation began. As a matter of fact and even if at the time of its construction the project has met a variety of political and social reactions and oppositions, nowadays, the hydroelectric plant is operating under an efficient environmental monitoring during operation (updating of databases, development of impact studies for the water quality, biodiversity’s protection and technical system’s improvement). Hence, the plant contributes successfully to the feeding of energy demands whereas its dam permits sport tourism (sports activities in the river) [Michalena, 2007]. The project is very often visited by students by several European Universities [Université de Corte, 2007].

8Crete is the second largest island of the Mediterranean Sea with a surface of 8,335 km² and a population of 650,000 in 2005 [to be noted that the population was 540,054 in 1991]. It’s a mountainous island, full of olive plantations and vineyards, with an altitude of 2,452m. The tertiary sector of the island occupies the 80% of job posts, and secondary and tertiary sectors have been very much benefited from tourism activity. Tourism arrivals have been increased in a percentage of 53% between the years 1986 and 1991 (whereas a responding percentage in the rest of Greece was of 25%) and the 13.3% of visitors in Greece during 2006 were located in Crete [Καθημερινη, 2007]. Intense tourism activity is due to the rich natural and historical monuments (Cretan influence in the civilization of the Mediterranean Sea and the ancient Greece was essential). The island’s location as well as the location of all Hellenic islands presented in this study, are presented in the following Hellenic map:
In the island, different forms of tourism are developing in perfect coexistence (leisure, religious, cultural, medical, ecological tourism, etc.), and therefore the island is very well equipped with transport infrastructures (two international airports) and facilities. A tendency of these infrastructures’ enrichment is occurring in present times with bioclimatic elements to be integrated in hotels, attracting engineers and (mainly local) investors’ interest. That’s why one of the biggest solar thermal system in Europe is situated in this island, on a 275 bed capacity hotel. The surface of the solar collector is 2,358m2 and covers the 70% of the hotel’s total
demand in hot water [Waldmann, 2004]. Apart from this system, since 1999 some more hotels of Crete host solar collectors which enable the covering of almost 10% of their needs, meaning an everyday load of 450-500kWH [Bakos and Soursos, 2002].
Considering that Greece has a benefit of almost 3,000 hours of sun per year and the possibility of solar energy production is estimated in 1,900KWH/m2 per year [DascalakI and Balaras, 2004] and considering that the construction sector in Greece consumes 36% of the total energy and produces 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions, solar energy is expected to lead at the improvement of living standards of local inhabitants and an increase of tourism’s quality.
In Crete, renewable energy projects play also the role of tourism thematic parks. For example the metallic windmills of Lassithy were built during 1930’s in order to supply the surrounding villages with energy. At that period of time, these windmills seemed completely strange to the surrounding environment and local negative reactions emerged. Nowadays, however, they reflect the local tradition of the site, since, in general, wind generators are considered as the continuity of one of the fundamental symbols of the islander Hellenic cultural identity: the wind mills. Indeed, municipal authorities of the area seized the importance and the potential of this “historical” site and began to restore the mills, in order to transform them into a successful attraction. This example shows clearly the great opportunities arisen from the creation of thematic parks dealing with the issue of energy.

9Milos is a Hellenic island of 160,1km2 and of 4,771 people (data of 2001), situated in the complex of Cyclades. A rocky island in its majority, presents an altitude of 748m and a volcanic geology. A variety of ancient masterpieces has been discovered in the island’s territories, the most famous among them being the statue of Aphrodite of Milos. The island’s residents are occupied with tourism, commerce, fishing, agriculture and industry activities.Rich in mines and in geothermy, the island has often been proposed for the implementation of pilot-projects on hydrogen and geothermy. Nevertheless, because of an accident taking place back in ‘80’s where toxic gazes have escaped during an effort of exploiting a geothermy plant, local residents remain always sceptical towards the operation of innovative energy projects in their territories [Μανωλογλου et al., 2002]. The yearly organisation in the island though of two of the biggest Hellenic conferences on renewable energy (the one being on RETs and the other on bioclimatic architecture) attract scientific tourism; this form of tourism is expected to lead to the extension of the tourism period in the island, as well as at the attraction of investments on renewable energy sources.

  • 1 The term "short family circuits" defines the family company of a quite small size, situated particu (...)

10Scopelos is a Hellenic island, situated in the Aegean Sea, belonging in the complex of Sporades with a surface of 90Km2 and a population of 4,696 people. It’s considered to be the island the most “green” of the Mediterranean see, while the capital of the island was declared from a Hellenic presidential degree as a “traditional area of a gorgeous beauty” [Presidential decree 594,13-11/78]. In the island, the majority of the productive activities operate on the basis of the multiactivity and of “short family circuits”1 [AgroParisTech-ENGREF, 2006].
Nowadays, the residents of the island seem to be more and more ecologically sensitive and informed for the importance of renewable energies and their applications. They even think to create a synergy between all productive sectors by further exploiting local products and by using RETs in the dispersed energy needs occurring
[Michalena, 2007]. Nevertheless, beyond this sensitivity which is certainly an essential pre-condition to engage new strategies, research in Skopelos highlighted a further need for information on renewable energy sources. This necessity occurred because of the residents’ isolation and because of negative past experiences with renewable energy technologies in other islands (like in the Milos’ island).

11Gavdos is a very small Hellenic island of 27 km2, inhabited already from the 16th century, situated in the southern part of Crete. Nowadays, only 98 local residents (data of 2001) live in this infertile and rocky island of a changing climate. Tourism infrastructures are almost non-existent, thought during summer the island is frequented from young campers. This results to some dispersed energy needs during the summer period and this is why a photovoltaic system of 20KW and some “electricity generators” are the sole sources of electricity feeding. Nevertheless, researchers have already proposed for this island the further use of photovoltaic modules which could feed increased electricity needs during the tourism peaks and orient the supplementary electricity production towards other applications (such as water desalination) during winter.

2. Results - Discussion

12We have seen in our analysis that Mediterranean islands are rich in natural resources, cultural heritage and political interest. As a consequence of these features, Mediterranean islands attract intense tourism activity but at the same time suffer from the mass- tourism’s negative effects, which together with the climate change constitute a threat for their own existence and development.
On the other hand, Mediterranean islands present common social characteristics, such as the isolation of the islander communities, the high degree of unemployment, the immigration of young people mainly from the inner parts of the islands, the lack of specialized work force, different degrees of population’s density in different areas, strong local political forces, and the conservative people’s mentality. In addition, common economic characteristics are apparent as well, the principal ones being: the unequal distribution of productive activities throughout the islands, a distribution in the productive sectors usually in analogies approximately 6%, 15%, 80% in the overall economy (for the primary, the secondary and the tertiary sector respectively), the load of local employment on tourism activity (mainly during July and August), a deficit in local investments and entrepreneurship, and a local entrepreneurial activity which is often based on a family and on a multiactivity basis.
Environmental specificities should be pointed out as well: apart from commonly shared ecological sensibility among local residents, Mediterranean islands often carry fragile ecosystems which are characterized as “sea parks” or “worldwide cultural and natural heritages”. With fragile infrastructures and inefficiency of water reserves, and surrounded by sea with limited or no access to the mainland in times of bad weather, these “natural beauties” are exposed and threatened from human pressures.
In the energy sector, some common problems are noticed as well: high prices of energy feeding, inadequacy of electricity transport infrastructure and a majority of energy feeding coming from thermal plants (oil) are the principal ones.

13Therefore, being regional areas -especially vulnerable and largely contributing to National Internal Products- Mediterranean islander territories should influence the European energy policy. In order that islands develop this “political power of influence”, they should create comparative advantages and added values. The restricted time available calls for action, methodology, effectiveness and collaboration of all policy makers and local actors. Cases studied have proved that integrated strategies which will link the governmental and the local administrative element with local entrepreneurship and research are possible and should be promoted with a view to achieve a sustainable tourism development (see cases of Corsica and Sicily). Especially for the Mediterranean islands, strategies should aim at preserving nature and heritage, developing society in a sustainable way, building energy capacity and energy autonomy and achieving economical growth.
Already mentioned “threats” could turn to be “opportunities” through autonomous and sustainable energy infrastructures. Special island geomorphological characteristics for example, permit the implantation of wind parks and hydroelectric stations (see cases of Corsica). Abundant energy resources permit the construction of biomass and geothermy plants, as well as the installation of photovoltaic and thermal solar systems (see case of Crete). RETs seem also capable not only to cover dispersed and peak energy demands on several applications (buildings, etc.) – see case of Crete- but also to facilitate the appearance of several special types of tourism (educational, scientific, sports tourism, or thematic parks) - cases of Corsica and Milos -. Moreover, when no energy needs exist, electricity produced through RETs could turn into water desalination for local needs –see case of Gavdos- or even being stocked for future use.

14Building knowledge on RETs seems also possible in the Mediterranean islands (see cases of Sicily and Sardinia), especially in an era where people become more and more informed on these technologies (see cases of Skopelos and Milos). In any case, we have seen that implemented and well functioning RETs could serve as prototypes and demonstration pilot-projects and that local tourism infrastructures which are equipped with bioclimatic features do strengthen local entrepreneurship. In conclusion, RETs were judged by scholars as the ideal source of energy feeding for islands especially when combined with systems of electricity stocking [KALDELIS et ZAFIRAKIS, 2007]. We have seen through this study that RETs seem to be the ideal solution as well, for the achievement of qualitative objectives in the field of tourism.

15Some prerequisites, thought, seem to be necessary to permit RET to develop alongside sustainable tourism: First of all, local governance should be powerful and stable in decision-making and not necessarily a priori predicated on the central and national decision making process. The degree of coupling between local (island) and national decision making should be variable in different places and RET opportunities; however independent of the level of local-national coupling, a process of good governance in decision-making at an island scale can be considered to be a pre-requisite.
Secondly, a high degree of local acceptance of innovative technologies and local participation processes should be assured.
The experiences in Corsica and Milos have shown that it takes time for a project to mature in local society’s mind. Therefore, investors should formulate projects with an adequate time-line to inform and consult local societies before they implement the project, and RETs should be implemented by priority in areas where people are familiarised with these technologies. In this context, a continuous increase in local awareness is needed.
Thirdly, attention should be given in RETs implementation according the size of the island and the different resources from region to region. Renewable energy plans should be based on specific energy needs and natural resources of each area separately like in Cyprus and Sardinia. Local planning issues, local business initiatives and willingness,
specific objectives and priorities of local policy, as well as specific existing pressures and the flexibility of local element, should also be taken into consideration. Moreover, RETs should also be used according to tourism’s type existing in the area. The case of Cyprus has shown that the use of solar systems for luxury tourism, the wind parks or biomass combustion for ecotourism approaches, or the advanced energy technologies for scientific tourism and geothermy for greenhouse applications (agro tourism) could be recommended.

16Further attention is also needed during the installation and operation of RETs. For the implementation of a “demanding” RET (such as a geothermy or a biogas plant) a step-by-step approach is needed, in order to avoid mistakes that might prove fatal in the future - like in the case of Milos -. A gained confidence among the local population not only contributes to the success of the project but also favours its promotion in other islands as well. Environmental impact studies are also needed before the implementation of the project for environmental protection and the most harmonious integration of the project into the surrounding environment. As a following step, the monitoring of the project’s environmental behaviour, and the maintainance of databases for recording and for the dissemination of positive results are recommended. Attention should also be drawn in the technical aspects which could raise the degree of technical efficiency and reduce operating cost. Technical synergies such as the combination of hydroelectric plants and thermoelectric ones should be researched for eventual electricity stocking.In the above mentioned efforts the use of European financing and the support of national governments are vital components to support progress towards implementing renewable energy in islands.


17The majority of Mediterranean islands seem to face similar problems, have similar vulnerabilities, and follow a similar trajectory for confronting the challenges of present and future. Taking into account the short duration of tourism’s period (three or four times a year) and the increasing rate of tourism arrivals, problems connected with energy and water sufficiency are likely to become even more serious. This paper demonstrates that renewable energy sources, abundant in worldwide islands, can be implemented in a way which addresses the challenges and vulnerabilities of the future, in full compliance with the obligations at a national level and from European Guidelines and Directives. Consequently, it seems that the potential for RET to transform islands to “qualitative tourism” sites exists. This study has also concluded that transfer of success stories is necessary. Of course a “best practice” which seems to be the ideal for an island, is not necessarily the ideal one for another. Different parameters, such as different geomorphologic, cultural and social particularities impose a specific approach and strategy. This process is complex, but through a consideration of a range of Mediterranean islands, a number of prerequisites have been identified which guide the procedures that should be followed, the conditions which should be respected and actions which should be put in place to provide islands with a more sustainable future.

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1 The term "short family circuits" defines the family company of a quite small size, situated particularly in rural areas of islands, which due to their weak economic capacity they can not be engaged in alternative investments [AgroParisTech-ENGREF, 2006]

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Titre Map 1 and 2. The geographic locations of the islands
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Evanthie Michalena, « Using Renewable Energy as a Tool to Achieve Tourism Sustainability in Mediterranean Islands »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 11 | Décembre 2008, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2008, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Evanthie Michalena

Special Advisor, Regulatory Authority for Energy, Greece - PhD, Cand, Sorbonne University, France

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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