A philhellene of the modern day


When we see the word philhellene, we tend to think of the historical version, the Byrons, the Fabviers and so on, but what of its modern-day counterpart? Perhaps someone who is aware of Greece’s shortcomings, but nevertheless puts their faith in its virtues, not in terms of its ancient grandeur but rather as a country with its own special place in the world today.

The general manager of the Hilton Athens Hotel, Dutchman Bart Van De Winkel, knows Greece like the back of his hand.

He first work assignment in Greece came in 1996. He returned in 2006, when the country was experiencing a period of post-Olympics euphoria.

The Hilton manager has remained in his position through the crisis years. His views of the country and its people are particular interesting, not because he’s prone to leniency, but because he is capable of providing some truly constructive criticism.

Van De Winkel shared his thoughts on the subject of the Greek capital’s potential to become a powerful tourist destination in its own right, as opposed to a brief stopover for travelers on their way to the popular islands, as well as Greece’s growth prospects.

“When one talks about Greece it’s impossible to go only as far as the country’s beautiful natural landscape and not mention certain traits which render its residents rather unique: There is a sense of independence in every Greek, the joy of life and the warmth of human relations. All of these together provide a strong incentive for anyone to visit your country,” said Van De WInkel, whose vast experience includes positions at a number of hotels in cities across Europe.

Are his remarks an attempt to balance out the capital’s reigning chaos? “In Western European countries, when the light turns orange, drivers brake. The opposite happens here, they accelerate. You sense a certain kind of intolerance toward rules. Curbing this independence and allowing it to become a stepping stone to success for a nation which has learnt to think outside the box is a major issue indeed,” he said.

The landmark Athens hotel’s general manager underlines that Greece has made huge leaps forward since 1986. How would he describe the Greek situation and psyche to his compatriot, eurozone chief and Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, if he had to?

“Obviously there was the issue of bad management with regard to the economy, among others, which started decades ago. There had to be change – there is no doubt about that. However, the time frame given for the adjustment to the new, demanding requirements was exceptionally short. I think it is now obvious that instead of healing the economy, they went about strangling it. I believe that those who developed this path did not take into consideration the Greek mentality and the fact that it takes a long time to break with the past.

“On the other hand, I think that not only the current government, but the ones before that, which were aware of the size of the problem, did not act swiftly in order to implement certain necessary reforms which would have nurtured a better economic climate on the local level and trust on the international level, so that things would progress based on a cleansing plan. In order to fight unemployment you have to invest. How can we still be talking about whether or not to move on with privatizations or the need for a more steady framework – legal and fiscal – for foreigners who believe that there are investment opportunities in Greece,” said the Dutchman, who, in turn, had to make small reforms at the hotel in order to survive the problems that arose with the crisis.

“At a certain point we had to readjust salaries and the number of employees, but we remain a very tight team and this has contributed to overcoming the difficulties.”

What about long-suffering Athens? What is the city’s future in terms of tourism? “Athens is on the rise because many islands are considered too expensive. There are attractive package deals with low-cost flights and many visitors come to the city. However, the problem of an unstable economic climate remains. In the past, travel agent giants would make bookings and give a certain sum as a downpayment. Now this money is deposited much later. Despite it all, though, I’m optimistic, as I believe that Greece is gifted both in terms of landscape and people, a combination which makes it unique and incomparable to cheaper neighboring countries. But that does not mean we should not improve certain things.”