img_basic-info01Crete is one of the 13 administrative regions of Greece. It is the biggest island in Greece and the fifth biggest of the Mediterranean.  It is situated in the Mediterranean Sea and at the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.  Its geographic position gives Crete significant strategic value which has resulted in the island being sought after by many conquerors over the course of history.

Crete covers an area of 8,336 sq.kms. The length of the island is 260 km and the width varies from 12 km to 60 km.  The length of Crete’s shore is 1,046 km which together with its climate accounts for its thriving tourist industry.  The main beaches of Crete are located on the north coast but there are also some more isolated beaches on the south coast.  Rivers on Crete are short and generally dry over the summer months.

A mountain range crosses the island from the west to the east.  It contains three different groups of mountains:

  • To the West the White Mountains (2,452 m);
  • In the middle the mountain of Ida (Psiloritis-2,456 m being the highest mountain on Crete); and
  • To the East the mountain of Dikti (2,148 m).

As a result of these mountains there are a number of fertile plateaus on Crete like Lasithi, Omalos and Nidha as well as caves like Diktaion and Idaion, and gorges like the famous Samaria Gorge.  Due to their small size and length, rivers on Crete tend to dry up during the summer months.


Crete has a temperate climate.  Winters are fairly mild and snow fall is rare in the plains but quite frequent in the mountains. During summer average temperatures are in the high 20’s-low 30’s celcius and the atmosphere can be quite humid, depending on the proximity to the sea.  The average air and sea temperatures for each month are shown below:


Air Temperature

Sea Temperature


Air Temperature

Sea Temperature

January 12.3 17.1 July 26.4 24.2
February 12.5 16.2 August 26.4 24.8
March 13.8 16.9 September 23.6 24.4
April 16.8 17.9 October 20.3 22.5
May 20.4 20.0 November 17.2 19.6
June 24.4 22.3 December 13.9 17.4

Flora & Fauna

There are over 2,000 different plant species in Crete of which approximately 10% are indigenous to the island. The Cretan flora is especially rich in herbal and pharmaceutical plants like oregano and thyme.  Many of these plants are collected, dried and sold locally or overseas. There is also a huge variety of flowers in Crete, like tulips, orchids and cyclamen.  The blossoming period lasts for more than 6 months (March to September) due to the favourable climate and terrain.  In addition, Crete is the most northern point on the globe where some African trees are encountered like cedar and palm.  In fact, the tropical palm forest at Vai on the Islands east coast is the only natural one in Europe.

The fauna of Crete like its flora is also quite varied. There are certain subspecies of animals that are indigenous only in Crete like the local wild goat the kri-kri and the Cretan tree frog. The bird life is extensive and includes a number of subspecies of the common hawk.   The sea life is fairly varied and certain beaches in the south of the island offer protection to the endangered caretta-caretta sea turtle.

Kri-kri: A Cretan Icon

img_basic-info02One of the emblems of Crete is the kri-kri or Cretan goat.  The local population often refer to them as “agrimi” for the male or “sanada” for the female.  The Kri-kri is impressive-looking, with a light brownish coat, a darker band around its neck and two horns swept back from the head. They are shy and rest during the day and can leap some distance or climb seemingly sheer cliffs.  In the wild they are rarely seen and few locals have seen them except in zoos.

The kri-kri is thought to have been imported to Crete from the Greek mainland during Minoan times.  However, nowadays it is only found on Crete and three small offshore islands.  In ancient times it is believed that the kri-kri was worshiped and wall paintings depicting the animal have been found.  During World War II it was hunted by mountain guerrillas as it was one of the few sources of meat available.  By 1960 the kri-kri was under threat with numbers below 200.  In order to protect it hunting was strictly prohibited and Samaria Gorge, where it is still found, became a national park.  By the 1990’s the numbers of kri-kri had partially recovered to about 2,000 animals.  Unfortunately they are still considered vulnerable as hunters continue to seek them for their tender meat, their grazing grounds have become more scarce and they have been affected by desease. In addition, Hybridization is a threat as their gene pool is mingled with ordinary goats.

Administration And Population

img_basic-info03The island of Crete is divided into 4 prefectures (or “Nomous” in Greek).  The above map shows the 4 prefectures and each of their capital cities.  The capital of Crete is Heraklion which is also its largest city and port.  The main airports and seaports are at Heraklion and Chania.  Souda Bay (near Chania) is also home to a large NATO naval base.

The populations as at 2005 and size of each prefecture are shown in the table below:













Area (sq kms )






Capital city population (Est)






The population of Crete compared to the total population of Greece has been at around 6% over the last 50 years (see table below).  There was a fall in population during the peak migration years during the 1960’s and 1970’s but in later years the population has began to grow again.






























The economy of Crete was traditionally based on farming.  However, this started changing rapidly during the 1970’s with a big increase in the services sector (mainly tourism).   The agricultural sector and spin-off industries such as processing-packaging still play a considerable role (refer table below).   Crete has an average per capita income which is close to 100% of the Greek average but it has a very low unemployment rate at approximately 4%, which is half of that of the Greek average.  In recent years the low unemployment rate and high economic growth has attracted a large number of foreign workers to Crete.

 Employment Sector






Services (including tourism)





The most dynamic sector of the Cretan economy is tourism and Crete is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Greece.  The excellent climate of the island, the beautiful landscapes and the modern tourist resorts attract more than 2 million visitors evimg_basic-info04ery year.

In fact, approximately 15% of all arrivals in Greece come through the city of Heraklion (seaport and airport) while charter flights to Heraklion are roughly 20% of the total of all

charter flights to Greece.  This increase in tourism is reflected on the number of hotel beds, which increased in Crete by 53% from 1986 to 1991 while in the rest of Greece the increase was only increase was only 25%.

In recent years attempts have been made to attract high spending tourists by developing golf and marina facilities.  In addition, many luxury resorts have sprung up across the island.  There is also a trend for foreigners, particularly Europeans, to make Crete their second home by buying villas and apartments on the island.


Despite the large increase in the services sector, Crete continues to be known for the quality of its agricultural products which are due to its good climate.  These include wine, olives, olive oil, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, and fresh fruits.  Many of these products are exported around the world including Australia.

Stock breeding also still plays an important role. In the Cretan plateaus sheep and goats are bred for their milk, wool and meat. The Cretan cheeses, especially Gruyere and “athotiros” are famous for their quality and distinctive taste.  Another occupation for quite a few Cretans is fishing and the quality of the fish in Crete is excellent although the quantity is limited due to overfishing in the past.

Main Cretan Agricultural Exports

  • Raisins / sultanas / wine
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Fresh fruit (grapes, citrus fruits, water melons, kiwis, avocadoes and bananas)
  • Fresh vegetables (cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, egg-plants and beans)
  • Honey
  • Pharmaceutical & aromatic plants (oregano, dictamus, mint, thyme, laudanum)


Crete has several industries involved with the packaging and shipping of its agricultural products.  It also has many light industries involved in the excavation and processing of marble, production of plastics and manufacture of farming machinery.  In recent years there has been growth in some export oriented enterprises in fields like car spare-parts, hospital equipment, orthopaedic products, plant hybrids, biotechnology products and software products. These enterprises have taken advantage of the specialised knowledge of the scientists and technicians who are either graduates of the higher education institutions or involved in the research facilities which have been established on the island.

Main Cretan Industrial Exports

  • Marble
  • Plastic products (greenhouse covers, pipes, packaging)
  • Agricultural machinery (tilling machines, sprayers)
  • Folk arts & crafts (leather products, ceramics, textiles, knitwear)

Transport & Communications

The majority of the road traffic on Crete uses the national highway which runs across the north seashore of the island from Chania to Sitia.  The rest of the roads range from smaller asphalt roads to all kinds of dirt roads.

Crete has two of the most important ports of the East Mediterranean Sea, the port of Heraklion and the port of Chania at Souda which connect the island with mainland Greece, a few of the Aegean islands, Europe and the rest of the world.  The two ports play a significant role in effectively supporting the efforts of Crete to be an important commercial centre in the Mediterranean.  At Souda there is also an important NATO naval base.  There are also two smaller ports in Rethymno, Agios Nikolaos and Sitia.

There are two international airports operating on Crete in Heraklion and in Chania which connect the island with most of the airports in Greece, many European countries and Cyprus, with regular or charter flights. Air traffic increases significantly during the summer months with Heraklion airport handling more than 130 plane arrivals per day.  There are also two military airports at Kastelli and Timbaki.

Heraklion Airport

(2003 statistics)




Cargo (Tonnes)






Education & Research

There are two main higher education institutions in Crete:

  • The University of Crete which has campuses in Heraklion and Rethymno; and
  • The Polytechnic of Chania which is based in Chania.

Heraklion is also the base of the Foundation for Research and Technology which is one of the most important research organizations in Greece. The Foundation comprises seven research Institutes with five of them based in Crete (Biology, Computer Science, Applied Mathematics, Laser and Microelectronics, Mediterranean Studies).

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