Greece’s tourism: Beyond sea and sun

The Olympic Games have been cited as the great challenge that will put Greece back on the world tourist map. Unfortunately, information that has come to light in recent days on tourism figures in this Olympic year is extremely disappointing. The phenomenon is of particular concern given the fact that international tourism has been developing along with rising living standards, as more countries acquire democratic governments, more borders are opened and new technology makes information, transport and communication easier and cheaper. So what is to blame and how can we prevent Greece’s share of the world tourism market from shrinking even further? What has changed? Tourism is spreading to new countries, meaning that more and more alternatives are presenting themselves to what we usually consider traditional destinations. So today, a traditional destination such as Greece is being threatened by the entry into the market of countries that can compete in areas where Greece has always had the advantage – the combination of sea and sun, for example. By extension, the development of international tourism will benefit mostly those countries that can offer unique products and services, something that cannot occur simply by replacing one destination with another. As for demand, it has been observed that rising living standards around the world combined with lower transport costs have allowed a greater number of people to travel for pleasure. Tourism these days covers a wide range of requirements, desires and activities than before. It is not solely aimed at recreation but includes other lifestyle choices and even business trips. In other words, tourism as a product differs according to the needs of a growing and interested public. What product? An observation of international trends with regard both to supply and demand calls for a differentiation of Greece’s tourism products and services. We have to create products that are not easily found at other destinations and to provide them in such a way as to increase their advantage. We should exploit all the natural and cultural advantages our country has to offer. In areas where we have none, we should separate those services we do offer according to quality, quantity and prices. We often hear that Greece’s greatest comparative advantage is in its tourism. However, a comparative advantage is whatever differentiates us from our competitors. Today, when there are more and more destinations, this advantage cannot solely be sea and sun. Greece’s greatest advantage lies in its combination of a landscape – natural and cultural – that varies widely over very short distances, and its historical and cultural traditions. First of all, we have to recognize tourism as our country’s main pillar of development in the long term. Tourism can provide answers to a number of problems: employment, income, the creation of an interest in culture, particularly in the provinces, and environmental protection. Tourism cannot develop effectively as long as it is dealt with separately from the rest of the economy and society. We need a study of all the direct and indirect ways it influences, and in turn is influenced by, the economy and society, in relation to international, particularly European, developments in all sectors as well. Tourism should be seen as the sum of different products and services, not as a unified whole. Each sector is aimed at different categories of tourists and needs a separate strategy and policy. Determining the quality of tourism services and products, based on high standards and unified criteria, is crucial. Charges should be calculated on the basis of cost and consumer preferences. The frequently held view that in order to revive regional economies, charges should reflect the needs of the supplier over a yearly basis should also be rejected. If we are to aim high in developing Greece’s tourism industry, we should find ways to make best use of the country’s advantages and not simply exploit them for exploitation’s sake. A dynamic business culture is mandatory in order to attract foreign investment in tourism. A new strategy A strategy for developing tourism can only be implemented by means of a combination of sectoral policies and a change in mentality. Take the following two examples: First, we cannot continue to view tourism development in an amateur fashion. Tourism, conventional or theme-oriented, has to be provided in a professional way. For that to happen, some people will have to specialize, others will have to be trained, even for the purpose of training others, all on the basis of strict international specifications that we would like to see in our own services. Incentives could be given to international academic organizations that specialize in the administration of tourism enterprises and hotels to set up branches in Greece, in order to increase the number of visitors and to change the content and standard of training and the way tourism services are generally regarded in Greece. Secondly, international experience shows that in developed countries a category of potential tourists – the elderly – is emerging that is not only larger in numbers but better off financially. This category should be the main target group, particularly for fall and winter. Change in mentality Both the State and its citizens need to change their mentality regarding tourism. The view that tourists do not spend much money should be countered with the observation that revenue is increased either by raising prices or consumption. Given the increased competition, however, increasing prices will lead to more revenue only if this is justified by the degree of difference in the products and services provided. Otherwise, tourists will choose the better and cheaper alternative. One only needs to consider the case of Turkey. Reducing prices for a common product might lead to increased revenue by attracting more tourists. However, this leads to mass, low-grade tourism and worst of all, degrades the environment and quality of life, leaving available resources unexploited. We have to fight the mentality of easy profits, the expenditure of the least possible effort, seasonal employment and an unjustified arrogance and snobbery toward travelers, Greek or foreign. The result of this mentality is a unified product for mass consumption, low quality and decreasing returns. Two principles need to be adhered to for a rational and viable growth industry – respect for differences and the protection of public resources. Let us not forget that tourism is a transaction between different cultures. At the same time, protecting goods such as the environment, quality of management and infrastructure boost the Greek tourist industry’s competitiveness and make it attractive to visitors. Tourism or hospitality? Finally, let us consider tourism as a microcosm of Greeks’ daily lives. Add to this the high price of tourism packages, the poor quality and arrogant «service» meted out to tourists, the ordeal of traveling at peak season and the neglected environment. These are the impressions gained by consumers of the tourism product in Greece, whether Greeks or foreigners. The environment and the people with whom a visitor comes into contact contribute to the image he or she takes home and eventually, to the country’s reputation. Promotion might be necessary to let the world know about whatever comparative advantages we offer, but the image that prevails in the long term is the one spread through «travelers’ tales.» So, if we are to have great expectations of profit from tourism, the visitor’s experience of daily life in Greece must be positive. The most important tourism investment, therefore, is in the people of Greece. It is up to us to care about and respect our own country. (1) Michalis Chrysochoidis is general secretary of the PASOK party.