The Greek tourism product must improve immediately or risk losing foreign investments, warns Stavros Andreadis, the president of the 15-year-old Association of Greek Tourist Enterprises (SETE). In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini, he explains the priorities the government should have to assist Greece’s fastest-growing sector. How can the tourism development of an area contribute to reducing its unemployment and maintaining its population? Unemployment and urbanization are linked both generally and particularly to economic growth in regions. Globalization, European unification and international financial developments bring changes to national economies that often are painful. One of those changes is the restructuring of production forms and activity. In this context tourism today has key importance to the economic and social development of Greece. It is an activity linked with the destinations. The practices of industries relocating have no place in tourism. Cheap agricultural imports, which force the local framers out of business, cannot be repeated in tourism. On the contrary, the growth of tourism activities in the region – particularly in Greece, with its potential everywhere – will hold the population where it is based, creating employment and decent living conditions. That is also proven by the census data, which show that only the prefectures developed for tourism, besides Attica and Thessaloniki, have an increase in population. Do major tourism investments destroy the environment or can it be protected? All healthy tourism investments, big or small, consider the environment as their main asset and make every effort to protect it as they cannot exist without it. What destroys the environment is the state’s inability to enforce the existing and often ambiguous legislation about its protection, along with the non-existence of zoning plans. What should the state’s priorities be and what are the private sector’s responsibilities in tourism to maintain the rise Greece enjoyed last year? In 2005 the negative trend in tourism was reversed. A 5 percent rise was recorded, which is certainly positive but does not allow for celebrations. There is some optimism for 2006 and the first indications are good. The course of tourism every year depends on two factors: the preparation we have made over the last four or five years on improving our product’s quality and, to a lesser extent, a series of external circumstances such as avian flu, terrorism and political conditions. Such circumstances may favor us in one instance or may not in another. We should therefore honestly consider whether we have actually improved the product we offer. The answer to this is also the answer to how our tourism will develop in the coming years. What specific investments are needed for Greece to attract quality tourism both in cities and in resorts? The choice of investments must come from analytical research so as to form the new portfolio of our products. Through its studies, SETE has recorded the products that are competitive and has clearly noted the priorities for development: sea tourism, luxury yachting and themed cruises, sports tourism, golf, event organization, sports teams’ training and combining vacations with sports practice, conferences and exhibitions as well as cultural tourism. The successful product of thalassotherapy ought to be expanded as a concept and lead to the development of the «health» tourism that is flourishing worldwide. Do you see delays in the use of public tourism property? I can see delays in several of its sectors. Some steps have been taken but we have to speed up our pace much more. Especially as far as public tourism property is concerned, I believe it should be used exclusively for the benefit of tourism and not be wasted for so-called social subsidies that do nothing for development. Could business funds intending to invest in our country turn elsewhere unless reforms in tourism proceed faster? Obviously there is more than just a risk of that happening, as foreign capital will certainly turn elsewhere. There are plenty of options in neighboring countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and even the Middle East and the new EU members, to name but a few. What is the role of local authorities in tourism? Local government plays a decisive role in the quality of our tourism product. The environment where visitors stay is shaped and maintained mainly by the local authorities. Despite a few positive exceptions, this sector is one of the biggest problems in our tourism offering. Often the reason for that is ignorance, or even apathy. SETE has asked that mayors of tourism areas submit their budget of the handling of funds meant to go to tourism development [and related areas]. We invite everyone involved in tourism in those areas to demand, ahead of local elections in October, that candidates be committed to that.