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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's plan to allow more construction and business activity along its vast Mediterranean coastline to boost its economy has sparked uproar in a country whose pristine beaches attract millions of tourists each year.
Greece's long coastline remains less developed than that of some Southern Europe countries, such as Spain. The draft bill would speed up getting permits for beachside hotels and ease restrictions on setting up umbrellas, drink stands and sunbeds.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's government says that will cut red tape and encourage investors as Greece slowly emerges from its worst post-World War Two economic crisis. Construction has been one of the areas hardest-hit, with figures released on Monday showing building volumes declined 5.9 percent in February - and that was an improvement
But the plan has run into a firestorm of protests in recent weeks. Environmental activists, labor unions and even some lawmakers from the ruling coalition have attacked the plan. They say it would irreversibly damage the coastline and put off tourists in the long run by turning it into a concrete eyesore.
It has also touched a nerve among ordinary Greeks in a nation proud of its seafaring roots and idyllic, sun-soaked islands. Thousands have taken to social media websites to vent their anger at the move, flooding websites with photographs of beaches from around the country's thousands of islands.
"Criminal," reads a poster by the Greek branch of conservation group WWF, with a picture of a white sandy beach, turquoise blue waters and tall pine trees.
"We will fight this at every stage," WWF's legal coordinator, George Chasiotis, told Reuters. "It's like the Spanish model but worse, and it will make Greece less attractive to visitors who want to experience its unique natural beauty."
The new legislation, which is open to public comment until Tuesday, will allow businesses to pay fines to legalize illegal constructions. Securing a building permit for hotels close to the shore will be simplified. Vendors will be allowed to set up umbrellas and sunbeds closer to each other.
"The economic importance of the coastal zone is huge, and the huge possibilities for economic development it provides must be unlocked," the finance ministry said.
At the weekend, it said the accusations "had nothing at all to do with the actual bill or the thinking behind it" and that the bill's top priority was to protect the Greek coast.
Tourism is Greece's biggest earner, accounting for about 17 percent of its output and 20 percent of jobs. The country is banking on a record number of tourist arrivals this year to set a long-awaited economic recovery in motion.
More than 26,000 people have signed an online petition saying the bill opens the landscape to "blind commercial exploitation." A Facebook page titled "Stop the destruction of Greece's shores" has found nearly 30,000 fans since being set up at the end of April.
"This is all we have left, why deprive us of it?" one Greek posted on Facebook. "The forests have burned down, we're drowning in cement, what else do they want? Don't pass it."
"A storm at the beach," top-selling newspaper Ta Nea wrote on its front page on Monday.
The main leftist opposition, Syriza, and the Socialist PASOK party - the junior coalition partner - have both come out against the plan.
"The shore does not belong to us, it is a good that we must preserve in the same or even better condition for future generations," PASOK spokesman Odysseas Konstantopoulos told a Greek newspaper, saying the bill would not pass in its current form.
A lawmaker from Samaras's New Democracy party has also threatened to vote against the bill.
"The bill is a monster," Fotini Pipili told Greek radio. There's no way I will vote for it as it stands."
Editing by Deepa Babington, Larry King