Greek cruises for ordinary folks

Serial entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the chairman of easyGroup, is loose again, this time on the Greek seas. After a successful first summer with long weekends in the Cyclades, easyCruise, one of his 17 ventures, has acquired a second, bigger ship and is adding three new itineraries: Classical Greece, a seven-night journey stretching from Cape Sounion to Ithaca, a 10-night trip on the Ionian Sea going as far as the port of Agioi Saranta in Albania, and a seven-night Aegean cruise on the new acquisition, easyCruiseLife, that includes calls at cosmopolitan resorts such as Myconos and Bodrum in Turkey, as well as at Syros, Kos, Samos and Paros. «The popularity of our 2007 season has proved that people are very keen to cruise the Aegean Islands. We intend adding one ship a year in the coming years, depending on the success of the second ship,» Haji-Ioannou told a press briefing on board easyCruiseOne on Thursday. Unlike traditional cruising, easyCruise sails for just a few hours each morning, giving passengers the opportunity to explore each destination until the next day. Like easyJet, Europe’s leading low-cost airline which Haji-Ioannou launched in 1995, easyCruise is no-frills, which helps keep prices low. These vary according to demand and generally rise as the ship fills up. The cost includes only transportation and accommodation in minimalist-design cabins, but suites of four-star hotel standard are also available. The Classical Greece cruise kicked off yesterday and the other three itineraries will be launched in the spring of 2008. Haji-Ioannou was interviewed by Kathimerini English Edition. Greece is not famous for being business-friendly. Did the monster of Greek bureaucracy make it difficult for you to start easyCruise? I think there are two exceptions to such difficulties in Greece: Shipping and tourism. And the cruise industry is a crossbreed between the two. The fact that we are classified as a shipping company helped a lot. The tourism sector is not necessarily freer of red tape but has a competitive edge, as we have some of the most beautiful islands and cleanest seas and we should exploit this. What should Greece do to bolster its tourism industry? I am a free marketeer and I think we should try to create more competition. Athens airport, for instance, is a private monopoly, that’s why it’s expensive. If the government wants to serve Greeks and their tourism industry, it should allow the use of more airports for commercial purposes, like the military airfields in Elefsina or Tanagra for example. London has five airports, why shouldn’t Athens have two or three? Another case in point is the very strict hotel classification system of the Greek National Tourism Organization, which has made it difficult for us to pursue our easyHotel venture here. The other thing is they don’t allow the building of any more four-star hotels in Athens. And there are too many design specifications for hotel classification. You must have safety regulations, such as for fire escapes, ventilation and so on, but there is no need to be prescriptive about whether a room should have a window, or a balcony, or so many square feet. So, I would say less central planning, less of the «I know best what luxury is, I know what people want» sort of mentality. Some people argue that not being a cheap country anymore, Greece should focus on attracting wealthier tourists. I think we should focus on everything. I strongly believe that we should not be elitist. Every little bit helps. Growth will come from enabling people who would not otherwise afford it to come and enjoy a holiday. I am quite proud of the fact that easyCruise has something for everybody. If I offered only suites, I wouldn’t survive, I wouldn’t be able to find enough customers. I think we should allow private enterprise to innovate and cut costs. For instance, easyJet uses better aircraft than any other airline and very well-trained crews. Do you enjoy any bits of luxury yourself? Yes. Let’s be clear: I think there is a time and place for everything. I am proud of the fact that I am in touch with reality, I am in touch with normal people, I communicate at all levels, I can use a bus or a taxi, and at the same time I have stayed in some of the best hotels in the world. This weekend I am going on a cruise on this ship, I am letting my guests have the suites and I am taking an inside cabin. Do you ever fly business or first class? On long-haul flights. I make this distinction: I think if you fly within Europe, economy class is perfectly adequate, but if you go to America or the Far East, business is worth paying for. After all, I pay out of my own pocket. How was the «easy» concept born in your mind? First of all, I kept looking for profitable businesses, not in the airline business in particular, and I came across Southwest Airlines, a very successful big carrier based in the United States. I looked at their concept and tried to find a name that works in Europe. I didn’t want to call it «cheapJet,» so I thought of the name «easy,» as synonymous with convenience, affordability and everything else, and then started extending it two or three years later. Were you surprised at how successful easyJet became so fast? I still don’t understand how easyJet became what it is now. I am surprised indeed. But let me add this: It’s unbelievable how some of the wealthiest British people fly easyJet. It really transcends all classes. So, you might describe easyJet as a great leveler. Exactly. Speaking of egalitarianism, I recall Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus saying in Athens recently that about two-thirds of mankind are excluded from credit facilities. He called this «financial apartheid,» arguing that all people are born with an entrepreneurial instinct and will develop it if given the chance. So, any hope for «easy» banking’? I am a great admirer of any entrepreneur and especially a Nobel laureate and I have great respect for what he says. I have thought about it but sometimes I think that we should make sure that we don’t allow this philosophy to lead to the kind of current crisis we have in the US and in Britain with subprime lending, in the sense that there is a risk if you lend too many people too much money, way beyond what they can afford to repay. You can create a moral hazard. So, yes I would like to make everybody bankable, but I understand that the way Yunus’s bank works in Bangladesh is by peer pressure. It is a very clever way of doing it, keeping everybody honest about repaying. But I am slightly worried about doing it in a Western environment. One of your slogans is, «We’ll paint the world orange.» Are there no limits? Of course there are limits. I’ve got enough work already and looking after all these businesses is a full-time job. Maybe I can create one more per year, but honestly, I don’t want you to believe that I can double that every year. It’s impossible. One has to be careful about over-stretching. I am aware of limits, too.