Putting themed tourism on the right track

By George Georgakopoulos

This country’s sports legacy makes the combination of culture and history with physical exercise an added attraction that Greece cannot afford to ignore.

Themed tourism offers benefits that mass tourism doesn’t, including high added value and repeat visitors. Greece has only recently started tapping this source through forms such as religious and conference tourism, but the idea of mixing holidays with sports is still in its infancy.

While rival destinations have developed programs welcoming individuals as well as teams to play, train or exercise – including professional clubs and athletes who are regulars in places such as Turkey, Spain and Portugal – Greece has not yet approached the idea in an organized fashion. Given the shortage of facilities, golf tourism is still in the early stages, while sailing may be an irresistible attraction but has a limited audience.

Olympic tourism, with visits to ancient and modern sites such as Olympia and Athens, could serve as a key attraction, as figures show that since the Panathenaic Stadium opened to the public with guided tours in 2010, it has been attracting about 100,000 visitors per year.

Last spring the Hellenic Olympic Academy made a modest attempt at bringing the history of the Games to life by organizing an event at the Panathenaic Stadium reviving the first Modern Games that took place at the site in 1896, but news of the event reached few tourists.

However, sports tourism is not just about seeing, it is about participating. The Hellenic Olympic Committee today provides for group tours to the Panathenaic Stadium to be optionally combined with some type of sports activity, through the arrangement of track or field competitions for visiting groups “so that visitors can feel the dynamic and powerful sporting pulse of this ancient stadium,” the Committee states.

That is something that should appeal to many visitors. A couple of months ago, one week before the 2013 Athens Classic Marathon, a group of Russian tourists aged between 40 and 70 wanted to enjoy the authentic experience of having a run at the birthplace of the Modern Olympics and a taste of what it might be like to do the marathon. Seeking a guide for the group, the agency that brought them to Athens contacted Maria Polyzou, the Greek recordholder in the marathon and the founder of Marathon Team Greece, which had over 1,000 runners in the 2013 Athens Marathon.

“Their tour operator contacted me. They knew my name from the Pheidippides feat I recorded in 2010 when I ran from Athens to Sparta and back in honor of the Battle of Marathon’s 2,500-year anniversary,” Polyzou told Kathimerini English Edition.

Apparently, the Russians were hoping to combine their visit to the Panathenaic Stadium with a run, and Polyzou happily took them to the nearby track of the Ethnikos Athens club.

“I originally thought the tourists just wanted us to meet, but they had much more in mind.

“They came in their track suits and trainers, complete with their first names printed on their tops, and ready to have a crack at running on an Athens track under my guidance,” said Polyzou.

“Their passion was delightfully unexpected and I encouraged them all to run 3 or even 5 kilometers on the track, some of them running that distance for the first time in their lives.

“They all crossed the finish line and loved it. They promised to tell everyone back home about it and return one day for more,” recounted Polyzou. “It seems to me that when we Greeks show visitors our best side, they are more than eager to enjoy themselves and fall in love with this country.”