What kind of tourists do we want?

By Alexis Papachelas

The sight of thousands of visitors from countries around the world strolling around the streets of central Athens is a sheer delight.

It feels as if the city is coming alive, with hotels often operating at full capacity while there are high expectations that this year will prove one of the best ever for the Greek tourism sector.

Nevertheless, the country ought to move away from its obsession with figures when it comes to tourism. Setting the bar high and talking about 13 or 14 million visitors is undoubtedly a positive stance. Yet like any other serious country that depends on the tourism sector, Greece must also set quality targets, for instance setting the bar high in terms of per capita revenue and figuring out exactly what type of tourists we wish to attract.

This requires an effort on a national level which will be based on specific goals and an overall plan. Looking back, “Greece in crisis” was promoted as “special-offer Greece,” given that a bankrupt country tends to be a rather low-budget destination as well.

The country needs the kind of systematic and fearless rebranding that will render it hip again and which will be addressed to the sort of niche audiences it seeks to attract.

There is a danger, however, which must be avoided. Anyone visiting leading destinations such as Santorini and Myconos, for instance, will observe how these islands are bombarded by very low-budget cruise ship visitors. This translates into thousands of people who tend to spend very little and cause overcrowding. This in turn drives away those who pay large sums of money for accommodation in the same places in the hope of getting away from it all and relaxing at an exclusive destination. A quick look at the various websites hosting visitors’ views on a number of local spots demonstrates that mass tourism and luring high-end visitors do not necessarily go hand in hand. Solutions do exist, however, and have been put to the test in Italy, among other countries. These are based either on imposing restrictions on the number of buses and visitors that are allowed to visit a particular place at any one time or even by charging per visitor.

Local authorities are often hesitant about imposing such restrictions, fearing the reaction of those who depend on revenues from the sale of low-budget products.

Generally speaking, the country needs a national plan for the sector. The state has shown interest while the local industry has capable leadership with a vision and the fortitude. What is missing is a plan and, above all, a setting of targets with regard to what kind of tourism the country is after.