CULTURE

Athens: A destination in itself

Ourism campaigns to promote Greek destinations don’t usually focus on Athens, often seen as little more than a stopover to the islands. Perceptions are changing however, especially since the 2004 Olympics put the city center-stage and efforts are now under way to focus on aspects of the nation’s capital so as to develop it as a «city break» destination. For the past year, a team of dedicated people at the Athens Tourism and Economic Development Agency (ATEDA) has been working to put Athens on the map as a leading European city travel destination. Known in the travel trade as City Break tourism, short breaks to urban destinations are developing into a growing trend in the industry. «The idea was to put together a mechanism that would try to capitalize on the post-Olympic era and create a momentum for Athens as a year-round tourism destination,» ATEDA’s Managing Director Alex Galinos told Kathimerini English Edition. ATEDA, a member of European Cities Tourism (ECT) which promotes and links the interests of more than 150 European cities from 30 countries, attended the first City Break Expo organized by Reed Travel Exhibitions in Helsinki in June and submitted a bid, with the support of the tourism development minister, Athens’s mayor and the Greek National Tourism Organization, to hold next year’s conference and exhibition in Athens. An ECT team recently visited Athens to inspect venues and a decision is expected to be announced in September. New image Holding the next ECT conference and exhibition in Athens would do much to boost the city’s image. Gone are the days when the city’s ancient culture was the only attraction in what was in some ways a Third World environment. New infrastructure (much of it thanks to the Olympics) and a more cosmopolitan ambience mean that the city now offers a modern urban culture while still keeping to a relatively small scale, along with its proximity to the countryside and coast. These advantages have provided opportunities to market the city for specific target groups eager to explore cities that have the advantages of good hotels and restaurants, a cafe culture, quality nightlife and shopping opportunities, all within easy reach of the beaches. Athens is now a place where international name brands are sold in hundreds of chic boutiques, specialty shops and luxury shopping malls, but there are still the traditional weekly street markets and handcrafted jewelry stores familiar to frequent visitors; day spas are another relatively new feature of the city’s luxury services. All are in areas within easy reach of each other. The city’s famous ancient sites are still there, but there are now a number of new museums, such as the New Benaki Museum and the Foundation of the Hellenic World, in redeveloped former industrial districts such as Pireos Street that offer more contemporary displays incorporating digitally advanced technology. At night, tourists once headed to the bars and tavernas of Plaka for souvlaki and ouzo; now there is an endless choice of entertainment, ranging from dozens of bars, restaurants and clubs in districts such as popular Psyrri, an old manufacturing district and the former industrial district of Gazi, to the Athens Concert Hall, one of the finest in Europe; from the upmarket chic of Kolonaki’s watering holes to the casual atmosphere of the city’s unique outdoor cinemas. Sydney businessman Arthur Hatzis, whose last visit was seven years ago, told Kathimerini English Edition that in the intervening period, the city has certainly come a long way. «I think the city center has been underrated. It is a destination in itself. I spent a few days wandering around, shopping, visiting ancient sites and sitting at cafes, using public transport. I found it very easy to get around. In the old days, it was a dusty, dry city but that has changed. It is a fascinating place to walk around in, even around Omonia Square – where, yes, it can be a bit rough but is always interesting, and not at all threatening.» The feeling of being in a safe environment is one of the major attractions in Athens. The Overseas Security Advisory Council’s 2006 Crime and Safety Report says that Athens «is relatively safer in terms of violent crime than comparably sized metropolitan cities.» The Mediterranean ambience, where social life is largely conducted out of doors for a large part of the year, no doubt has a lot to do with the sense of being among friends. Cooperation and support Still in its early stages, ATEDA is looking to encourage cooperation with the major players in the city’s tourism industry to move on from what has been a piecemeal approach in the past. According to Galinos and his team, one of the main goals at the moment is to encourage a tourism culture at local level and build cooperation among travel professionals, as well as to secure steady funding for further efforts, particularly marketing. One of the problems, they say, is the proliferation of different groups with small budgets. As a result, the impact is minimal. «The important thing is for people to get to know each other and realize that cooperation is a win-win situation,» said Galinos.