A screen shows an image of a visually attractive dish with something that looks like chicken piled in the middle and a bunch of indiscernible greens, with an asparagus spear or two poking out.
“What is wrong with this dish?” Erik Wolf, the American founder and executive director of the World Food Travel Association, asked his audience on the southeastern Aegean island of Santorini.
“You are right,” he responded to a member of the audience who suggested that the dish on the screen was one that could be served in any part of the world.
It is “international cuisine, and most tourists are not interested in international cuisine,” said Wolf, adding: “Think about the first things you ask someone coming back from a trip. How was the weather and what did you eat?”
The acclaimed culinary travel agent was on Santorini as part of an international conference that took place on October 17-18 titled “Tourism and Gastronomy: Moving Forward,” organized by Heliotopos. The aim of the event was to exchange know-how as part of an effort to promote the popular holiday island as a gastronomical destination as well. Proof of the need for such an event was the fact that Wolf had never heard of the wonderful products and delicacies of Santorini nor of those from other parts of Greece and, of course, had never considered the island a culinary destination.
“We Americans believe that Greece produces nothing but olive oil and maybe a bit of wine from varieties with strange names,” Wolf said.
As far as the famed Mediterranean diet is concerned, Wolf said that in most people’s minds it is just another weight-loss program.
“I just discovered the tomato fritter [domatokefte],” said Wolf. “Gastronomy could become a cornerstone for tourism here. You have history but, you know, not everyone goes to museums; but everyone eats.”
Speaking to Greek and foreign journalists, as well as local tourism professionals and officials, Wolf presented an action and policy plan that could help Santorini become an international culinary destination. However, it became abundantly clear from the other presentations at the conference that there are a lot of domestic problems that need to be tackled before such steps can be taken.
For example, Giorgos Pittas, a member of the board of the Greek Chamber of Hoteliers and head of the Greek Breakfast Program, explained the difficulties he has faced in getting certain hoteliers to get on board with the latter, an initiative aimed at promoting local products as part of a signature breakfast buffet. Four years after the initiative was first launched, just 170 hotels in Greece are currently serving a Greek breakfast, Pittas said, arguing that given the difficulties the program has encountered, even this small number is considered a success.
“At the same time, we are spending 100 million euros a year to import gouda,” added Pittas.
Vassilis Zacharakis, head of Santorini’s restaurateurs association, said that what he sees as the biggest obstacle is convincing professionals who have been making a good living for years on one form of tourism to try something different.
Santorini Mayor Anastasios-Nikolaos Zorzos, however, said that his office is currently looking at three studies proposing different methods to develop Santorini’s tourism sector. He added that the conclusions of the studies will be implemented by a special tourism promotion board that is currently in the making.
Costas Constantinidis, the chief executive officer of Heliotopos, noted the progress that has already been made in 2013, which was declared “Year of Gastronomy on Santorini,” such as seminars, media campaigns aimed at visiting journalists and exhibitions.
“We capitalized on a lot of things that have been going on for years during the Year of Gastronomy,” said Giorgos Hatziyannakis, owner of the acclaimed Selene restaurant. “Now it is time to decide what we want, and to look at our other assets besides products and tourism. [Former European Commission President Jacques] Delors said as much two decades ago, but we weren’t paying attention.”