A history of tourism in Greece through the 1950s

Every summer tourism professionals complain to the media about the absence of state control over the sector, demanding steps to develop the industry and improve the quality of the services offered in one of Europe’s most popular destinations. The fact is that newspapers have been repeating the same mantra since the late 1920s.

Historian Angelos Vlachos traces the history of Greek tourism in a new study based on his PhD thesis “Tourism Development and Public Policy in Modern Greece (1914-1950),” published this year, and on his personal experience working at the Ministry of Tourism and the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO). Over the past few years he has also been working with Louis Cruises as a visiting professor, presenting on-board seminars about the history of the eastern Mediterranean.

“For many years tourism was taken for granted and there was the belief that it did not need to be studied,” says Vlachos. “However, this meant that revealing historical significance and its intensely political dimension was not possible.”

It is ludicrous, to say the least, that in a country where tourism has generated around 16 percent of gross domestic product directly and indirectly in the past decade, you cannot find a comprehensive study on Greek tourism in any bookstore. Vlachos’s research serves to remedy this oversight to some extent, as it presents extremely interesting facts and data. What is most interesting, however, is how the same problems keep emerging from one decade to the next as well as the certainty that to really develop tourism in any meaningful way, Greece needs a national action plan.

“One particular reason to make a closer study of the tourism phenomenon today is that 2014 symbolically marks one century since the birth of the first public tourism body, the Bureau for Foreigners and Tourism Expositions,” says Vlachos.

The historian talks about some of the landmarks in the history of Greek tourism as he presents them in his study.

* The Bureau for Foreigners and Tourism Expositions was created in 1914 under Finance Minister Andreas Michalakopoulos, a close associated of Eleftherios Venizelos. It was staffed by a small number of civil servants and its purpose was to develop tourism. It was designed along the same lines as its French counterpart and confirms the will of the state to have a say in the structure and planning of tourism, which in the previous years, during the Belle Epoque, had started intensifying. The number of tourists to the southern Balkans had skyrocketed. The key reasons for this were the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, as well as the discoveries of archaeological excavations at the turn of the century. At the same time, the idea of customs and passports began to be developed on an international level. The founding of the Bureau for Foreigners and Tourism Expositions, unfortunately, coincided with the outbreak of World War I, which forced it into a hiatus for several years.

* In 1919, the Bureau for Foreigners and Tourism Expositions was renamed the Service for Foreigners and Tourism Expositions and, on paper at least, was upgraded. This second institutional step coincided with the Greek military campaign in Asia Minor, which led to the 1922 catastrophe.

* During the 1925-26 dictatorship of Theodoros Pangalos, the service was disbanded and replaced with the National Touring Association along the lines of Italy’s under Mussolini. From the late 1920s and up until the start of World War II, Greece followed Italy’s lead in tourism policy development.

* The Pangalos regime was overthrown in 1926 and the earlier service for tourism was re-established. In the period between 1926 and 1928, when Eleftherios Venizelos returned to power, the concept of tourism was high on the agenda of public discourse. One example of this is that there were hundreds of articles written on the subject in newspapers, where we see similar criticism to the present. Tourists would complain that they were disappointed by their lodgings, the services and the profiteering, while commentators lamented the absence of state intervention. The same period saw an explosion in the number of travelers’ memoirs and collections. Greece entered a period of introversion and self-discovery as the “Megali Idea” of uniting all Greek-speaking people collapsed. Diaries became a way for middle-class travelers to redefine the image of the country.

* In 1929 Venizelos appointed his close friend Kokos Melas, brother of Pavlos Melas – one of the leading proponents of the Macedonia Struggle – as managing director of the newly established Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO), under the guidance of Panaghis Vourloumis, a lawyer and economist as well as a close aide of Venizelos. The new organization was established by the public consultation process. After the fall of the government in 1932, Venizelos’s cadres at the GNTO were replaced by members of the conservative camp who stripped the organization of most of its progressive policies. All that remains of the GNTO’s first days are the minutes of the meetings of the board, which testify to its ambition. The Service for Foreigners and Tourism Expositions was re-established yet again, though its scope was limited exclusively to the promotion of hot springs, which was considered the only area where tourism policy was needed.

* In 1936 Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas established the post of deputy minister for press and tourism. The public debate regarding tourism as a means to prop up the economy gave way to one where tourism topped the agenda and went hand in hand with the regime’s iron-handed policies. Greece’s public image was expressed, for example, through the photographs of Nelly’s – including dancers in the Parthenon – while Metaxas ordered that all houses on the Cycladic islands be whitewashed, partly for hygiene reasons but also because he believed it made them look more picturesque.

* The post of deputy minister for press and tourism was abolished in 1941. Shortly before the end of the Nazi occupation of Greece, an unexpected discussion began in the higher echelons of the National Bank of Greece, which appointed a committee of experts to draw up a confidential report on the potential of Greece as a tourism destination. The team was headed by Dimitrios Papaefstratiou, since known as the father of Greek tourism.

* The next landmark came in 1945 as the General Secretariat for Tourism was founded to rebuild tourism, which among other sectors of the economy had suffered a crippling blow because of the war. But tourism became an arena of adversity once more as traditional hoteliers protested the construction of new accommodation, arguing that the money would be better spent on renovations.

The first part of Vlachos’s study ends in the late 1940s as Greece was trying to recover from the war with the help of the US-led Marshall Plan. External factors, such as the Korean War in 1950, shifted America’s interest from Europe to Asia. Suspicion of the Greek elite and the way that it was handling the funds pouring in from the US compelled Washington to pressure the state into passing two important decisions. One was for the establishment of the Hellenic Tourism Organization, which had complete oversight over tourism development issues and was well staffed, becoming an engine of growth. The Americans, along with a handful of enlightened Greeks, believed that tourism could be the cornerstone of Greece’s postwar development model.

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