Quality tourism only paid lip service

It is a sad truth that we Greeks rarely appreciate our national assets, those that have provided us with the means for reaching our present standard of living and will help us develop in the future. Visitors to the countryside during the past Easter weekend again witnessed the perennial disrespect for building regulations, and a lack of good taste and cleanliness. We forget that about 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, or approximately 50 billion euros, comes from tourism. The sector accounts, directly or indirectly, for the employment of an estimated 800,000 people. Naturally, the problems inherent in the Greek tourism product are now coming to bear on the sector. Industry data show a measure of «fatigue» in key indicators. Growth in the number of visitors has begun to slow, along with revenue. What is worse, the per capita spending of visitors has decreased from 854 euros in 2004 to 748 euros last year. In other words, Greece is increasingly relying on mass tourism, which has its own unwanted costs: on the environment, culture and, ultimately, on the economy, as mass travel is seasonal and in many respects volatile. This means that a country relying on mass tourism is likely to suffer in the event of an economic recession in the main source markets. Despite successive tourism ministers paying lip service to the goal of giving Greek tourism qualitative characteristics, none of them managed to negotiate the mazes of red tape. In a rather empirical context, the Tourism Ministry oversees only about 20 percent of issues relating to the industry. The rest fall within the responsibilities of other ministries, including those of Transport, Culture, Interior, Environment, Economy and Development (for the rare large investments). This bureaucratic salad ensures that everyone does as they please. For instance, as Kathimerini recently wrote, some hoteliers on one Aegean island colluded, agreeing to offer five-night packages only. Those who wanted shorter stays either paid for five nights or went elsewhere. Besides being shameful, such practices are also illegal. They stupidly target Greek tourists who, suddenly, find it is cheaper to spend Easter in London, Prague or Paris. But sanctions are nowhere to be seen, letting some operators go unchecked. Blackmail works, albeit temporarily, competitiveness goes out the window, quality stagnates and visitors are disappointed. Tourism Minister Aris Spiliotopoulos appears to have adopted the same rhetoric as his predecessors, as it might have been expected of him, regarding improving the quality of Greek tourism. But if something substantial is to be done, it will require the prime minister’s initiative to disentangle the maze of regulations between the various ministries and move from words to action. The time is now right. Not because we are at the start of a new tourist season, but because we are a few decades late.