Eternal hopes, chronic worries: Greece’s tourist industry begins facing up to the post-Olympic era

Another year, another tourism campaign: There’s nothing novel about the annual groveling for the tourist euro, but with the competition getting tougher each year, it remains necessary, even vital. Greece is not alone in having a dazzling array of offerings, while other countries can often package theirs more appealingly or economically. These days, Greece has to run fast just to keep from falling behind. Just how fast is it running? The last hotel room I occupied was in a «renovated» establishment in a pretty Greek mountain town full of tourists. The room was charmless, with a view of a block of flats, decor straight out of the ’70s, a sagging bed, a dripping faucet, a bathroom door that didn’t close and I tussled with the receptionist, baby perched in her lap, over being charged extra for a breakfast I didn’t eat. The problem was not that all this was unusual, but that it was utterly common to my experience, such that I never gave it another thought until now. Others don’t forget so easily, and that’s often the problem in a word-of-mouth industry. Tourism needs splashy campaigns, but it also needs micro-level attention, with satisfaction determined by intangibles like service quality, attitudes and accessible information as much as cost and scenery. And comfortable assumptions about the country’s innate appeal no longer suffice. Big chance Every year is crucial for this crucial sector, but 2005 can make a special claim for importance. Greece has just had arguably its most «visible» year ever, with 3 billion people tuning in to the Athens Olympics, which fairly beg to be capitalized on. Despite the visibility of the Games – or perhaps because of the bad publicity in their buildup – 2004 was a poor year, with arrivals down some 6 percent from 2003. Olympic hosts typically see a big post-Games boost, but Greece will clearly have to work for its downstream effect. Just before Christmas, the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) unveiled its eye-catching new advertising poster, «Live your Myth in Greece,» a bottom-up view of a classical-age temple, its sharp angles framed against a sharp blue sky, with a slightly frazzled-looking mermaid floating outward from it. It spearheads a record budget of 60 million euros (31.9 million for the print and TV adverts, another 28 million for «subsidiary actions»). Tourism Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said the main goal was «to capitalize on the successful staging of the Olympic Games and project the country’s quality tourism services offered in a fully secure environment.» «This year,» he thought to add, «we are on time.» Progress often comes in small steps. Tourism and shipping slug it out for the title of Greece’s biggest single industry, with the former accounting for around 15 percent of GDP. Greece gets about 3.5 percent of all tourist arrivals in Europe, over 14 million in 2002, and that year ranked 10th worldwide in foreign tourist receipts at nearly $10 billion. Regardless of these figures, few dispute that tourism needs an overhaul; how to provide it brings less unanimity, though a timelier campaign can’t hurt. Much of the problem is structural. The strong euro eliminates Greece’s bargain-basement past allure, compared with non-eurozone places like Turkey, Tunisia or Israel. At the other end, service is sometimes slipshod compared to other small eurozone competitors such as Portugal or Austria. Lacking either lower costs or higher service standards puts you between a rock and a hard place, which sums up Greece’s 21st century dilemma in this sector. What is Greece doing electronically to get people to come physically (or stay if they’re already here)? Say you’re a prospective tourist from northern Germany, pining for the Mediterranean sun on a cold Nordic night. Google «Greek tourism,» and here’s what you find. The first option to appear is the official GNTO site, in Greek and English. Description takes a back seat to pictures, but overall it’s attractive and fairly readable. There are exceptions; the «cultural events» option opens with a double negative («You cannot come to Greece and not go to one of its many cultural events»), the «natural beauties» option is shorter on lyrical descriptions than on details of laws on forest preservation, and many promising sub-sites (like that for «winter tourism») give only charts and phone numbers. The small print says the content is under revision, so some editing and additions may be on the way, none too soon. Another spot for «Greek National Tourism Organization» touts «this loveliness that is already thousands of years old,» and says that «the GNTO is shaping a grand path for Greek tourism, looking forward to 2004 and 2010.» That’s not much of an enticement. Until last week, the site informed readers of the «new» change in phone numbers in Greece (introduced in November 2002), although this old content has apparently just been scuttled, as it now links to the main GNTO site. Past imperfect Another site called «infoXenios» offers a «welcome to the official travel and tourism guide to Greece» for an unsuspecting surfer. It was apparently set up as a newfangled, early-Web attempt to sell the country and its charms, then left to languish. It is still pedaling a decade-old Greece to a quizzical world. A click on the icon «Hellas GNTO» brings up an options list. From the vantage point of 2005 it offers a fascinating time-lapse tour. Prices are still listed in drachmas, the old currency dropped in 2001. The Benaki Museum is temporarily closed and the National Archaeological Museum open (by 2004, it was the other way around). Local phone numbers have no 210 prefix. The list of camping sites provides daily rates – for 1996. It gives information for Olympic Airways (which no longer exists, though Olympic Airlines does), and it directs you to either the East or West terminal, which were last in use in 1999; the tram, suburban railway, Spata airport, and metro are nonexistent. It comes as some surprise that this was «chosen as one of the best tourism websites of Europe.» Clearly, this is a defunct site. But as it comes up prominently on a search and calls itself official, it needs to be updated or deleted, if only to prevent scores of unsuspecting Danes, Brits or Germans from cringing, then moving their search elsewhere. It’s just another symptom of neglect that all the glossy posters and 15-second TV spots in the world won’t solve; nowadays, most people get their travel information from the Internet, not from posters at bus stops. KTEL, the national bus network, still doesn’t have a working website. In order to sell Greece, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a potential visitor, who might be less carefree with his schedule than we assume. Compare this with the Spanish tourism site, whose home page offers variety and options right off the bat: tours celebrating the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s birth, skiing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, health spas, virtual tours. There is no reason why Greece, with plenty of literary figures of its own, a fair number of decent ski centers (and a new one at Falakros) and spas galore, can’t more imaginatively promote its own variety. Why not boost Greek regional cookery, or wines? Where are the Olympic site tours? For all the new development bills, organizational overhauls and increased tourism budgets, lifting tourism in either quality or quantity is a long-term task that cannot wait. Perhaps the people who kept the Athens 2004 website so usefully maintained could be set loose on the GNTO site, which is still directed by a government ministry rather than the creative entrepreneurs increasingly operating local or regional sites. Greece’s chronically deficient tourist campaigns now run up against a superbly effective (and technically efficient) Olympics as an alternative advertising model; it would be a great pity if the lax old ways trump the new and better ones as a starting point for peddling Greece’s undoubted charms to an increasingly discerning and unforgiving world.