The growth in tourism in Greece over the last couple of years has been accompanied by a notable rise in demand for sightseeing tours designed for both locals and visitors. Moreover, in the country’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, companies which provide entertaining tour services have created their own niche alongside more traditional sightseeing services.
“We were thinking about how we do not know our city. We go past monuments of exceptional importance and we don’t even look at them. We take them for granted,” explains Nikolina Manoli, one of the five young women who founded Thessaloniki-based sightseeing company dot2dot. This month, the five entrepreneurs organized a walking tour of the city’s “dark history,” as Manoli describes it. The tour takes in cemeteries located outside the Walls of Thessaloniki, a fortification that surrounded the city from the Middle Ages up until the late 19th century before it was demolished by the Ottomans. Moreover, it also serves to educate participants about the wars the city was witness to during the 20th century.
The innovative tour agency stresses the importance of an interactive experience with its customers. “The relationship we have with our clients is more personal. That’s why we teach them about the city using games and other forms of entertainment. We don’t want to lecture.” Last month, for example, dot2dot organized a walking tour with the theme of urban legends and other metaphysical phenomena that have been said to exist in Thessaloniki as a theme.
In Athens, another sightseeing company operates based on a similar philosophy. Big Olive’s staff comprises academics and professionals, who, inspired by the city, offer theme-based, seminar-type walking tours, focusing on topics such as art, architecture, literature, history and gastronomy. “We’ve seen the emergence of a new trend in sightseeing culture, that of a more interactive approach to tours as opposed to the traditional, more romantic type, which has fallen out of favor,” says Giannis Darras, on behalf of the Big Olive team.
Although the agency’s fortes are architecture and gastronomy-focused tours, it also organizes walking tours at archaeological sites upon request. Both dot2dot and Big Olive cooperate with foreign travel agencies, academic institutions and architecture firms. “When touring archaeological sites, we cooperate with certified guides,” explains Darras.
The Association of Licensed Tourist Guides has repeatedly lodged complaints about unqualified guides who take advantage of tourists. It says these “con artists” are not qualified to guide tours responsibly nor to guarantee the overall safety of the sightseers. The problem is believed to occur more frequently with groups of tourists who speak less common languages, such as Chinese, Korean and Hebrew.
The president of the Hellenic Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies, Lissandros Tsilidis, notes that the agencies, who in essence are the market’s moderators, cooperate exclusively with certified professionals. However, due to the wide range of topics that some tours cover, it is sometimes impossible for the expectations of these services to be met by certified tour guides. “When we are asked to provide our services at archaeological sites, for example, we collaborate with professional tour guides, who we further educate. For instance, we might organize a tour focusing on ancient Greek architecture’s influence on contemporary architecture,” says Darras. “Most professional tour guides have a fundamental knowledge of archaeology but are uninformed in respect to that particular subject,” he continues. On the other hand, professional guides complain about the market being destabilized ever since the abolishment of the tourist police and the closure of certain public tourism education institutions that turned out dexterous tour guides. “Alternative sightseeing tours are not really anything new. They have been happening for over 20 years now but there isn’t great demand for them,” explains Gemma Economopoulou on behalf of the Association of Licensed Tourist Guides.
Conversely, dot2dot is organizing a tour next month that clearly shows how the sightseeing market has managed to forge a comeback with the implementation of new technology. “The journey will be titled ‘When Elephants Dance,’ from Sofia Nikolaidou’s homonymous book title. The tour will follow the events that took place leading to the assassination of Polk, the novel’s protagonist, while the book’s price will be included in the admission fee,” Manoli explains, adding that “both the event and the novel will be promoted via social media.”