Tourism policy begins to show results

Greece had more visitors this year, but that is just one side of the story. Poor services, profiteering, ugly infrastructure and environmental destruction are still part of the scene, a leftover from the tourism model of the 1960s. We asked Tourism Development Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos what he was planning to do about it. A Swiss tourist just off the plane was surprised to find the country’s top tourism official waiting for him at the office of the Greek National Tourism Organization at the airport. The lucky visitor was given a ride to his hotel in a ministry car – not part of a new service, but the result of a chance meeting – he just happened to arrive at the GNTO office when Kathimerini’s photographer was taking shots of the minister at the airport. «Lucky» is a word often used to describe Avramopoulos, who has lately been seen grinning broadly over the season’s visitor figures, which seem to confirm the rule that Olympic host cities see a jump in tourism the following year. Avramopoulos knows that to keep the increase from being temporary, much has to be done. He himself has made dozens of visits abroad, from Beijing to Los Angeles, mobilized the National Tourism Council, and next month will receive a World Travel Award on behalf of the GNTO. Yet Greece as a tourist destination is still Janus-faced – the one side is modern quality tourism, the other is the flip side of the fast buck and lack of respect for the environment, the country’s image, and for tourists, too. Did you go on holiday? Not as people usually understand the word. I visited the two or three places that my family went on holiday, just for two to three days while taking the opportunity to check on the tourist industry in those places – Halkidiki, Kos, Kyllini, Kastelorizo and, briefly, Rhodes. Did you get served any pre-fried potatoes? Yes, in quite a few restaurants. I also had the experience of paying much more for a meal than it was worth, and taking by surprise some people who rent out very poor quality rooms to tourists. I always start from the bottom, the things we should change, which unfortunately still exist. You are the first tourism minister and you are considered the best person for the job. Politicians have to be the best at any position they are assigned, otherwise, they should have stayed in the post they had before going into politics, if indeed they had one. Does that mean you would like a change? That is not what I meant, but when someone enters politics, he or she has to assume roles and do work assigned either by the people or by circumstances. Are you satisfied with this ministry? From the very first I said I was most excited by it. I always believed that tourism is the country’s vehicle for growth, because apart from the economic and business side, it has the potential to directly affect quality of life, the way the country operates, its reputation and its image. There has been an increase in tourism – 15 percent in July, charter flights are 40 percent up, and 11.6 percent in total tourism demand, according to the World Tourism Council. Yes, there has been a big increase, with maritime tourism up by 300 percent, in fact. If one includes the first six months of the year, which were not as good, revenues have increased by 6 percent, according to the Bank of Greece. It is important to remember what the situation was this time last year – forecasts were not too good for European, and therefore Greek, tourism. What has been achieved is due to to our successful advertising campaign, our activities abroad and the good will and synergy between the business sector and our ministry. When we talk about a 15 percent increase, are we talking about money or numbers of tourists? The two go together, I believe. Not if more tourists arrive but spend less money. First of all, this season is not yet over. We have not done the final sums, but if we judge from the early confirmed data, then it is certain that the year will end with a larger number of visitors as well as with higher revenues. The impression is that we have become a «package tourism» destination, with tourists not spending a single euro after they arrive. That is only part of the reality of tourism worldwide. What is important is the other side of the coin. It is encouraging that large hotels that have signed contracts with agencies have been very profitable this year. What is important for us is to turn tourism toward quality. If the market responds positively – and it will be forced to do so – then the situation will become clearer. Gradually Greece will move into another era. Mass tourism was the choice of the 1960s and 1970s. But it does nothing for the sustainability of tourism, it is opportunistic. From the outset, we said our 10-year strategy – something established for the first time in Greece – is based on three factors: culture, environment, growth, based on the principles of sustainable development. You have talked frequently about quality tourism, but what about the destruction of the environment, our cultural traditions, the focus on making a fast buck without any real effort? You have touched on a sensitive area. When I say «quality» I don’t mean «luxury,» but simplicity, cleanliness and the peace of the Greek landscape and traditions. At the dawn of a new age for the whole world, where Greece has a comparative advantage in its culture, environment and history, it is inconceivable for the country to present the image of a Third World state, with dirty streets and poor services. All these things cancel out the total effort. I have always believed that tourism can change the country’s image for the better, and the way the country operates, highlighting a quality of life that should be our goal. Sea and sun are not enough for a discriminating visitor. When someone has to spend three days on a rustbucket to get to a particular island after paying 95 euros for the car and 95 euros per person for a cabin, why come back to Greece? I have always said that the best tourist is the one who wants to come back. If things are to change, we have to cultivate a consciousness of tourism. Our tourism slogans -«Live your Myth in Greece» abroad and «We are staying in Greece» at home – were no coincidence. We wanted Greeks to get to know their own country better and to give those in the industry a sense of their own responsibility. Is it true that the owners of larger hotels are often more aware of the environment and treat tourists better? It is true that smaller businesses can be engaged in such competition that they ruin the landscape with competing advertising. This is something that we will fight. It shows a lack of respect for the environment. We don’t just want a good destination, such as a very good hotel, but a correspondingly good approach to it, with clean, well-marked, safe roads. This is all part of the overall responsibility, where our policies interact with those of other agencies. What about the municipal officials working in concert with these interests? Apart from these phenomena, local government has begun to develop a sense of responsibility. I would like to believe that in the talks we will soon have with local officials, we will arrive at conclusions that send a message to the entire country. The fact that a local election campaign is in the offing is a good opportunity to raise issues. Tourism is the arena in which responsibility at various levels of representation converge. Cultivating a tourism mentality also has to do with both public and private sectors. The final judges are the people, who have to keep their eyes open. That sounds all very well, but what about powers to impose, for example, the removal of a sign on a listed home in Rhodes, or a plastic chair in Rhodes, or to ensure there are paper towels in toilets? The ministry, which has had these authorities from the outset, is already carrying out inspections, but we decided to allow a period for people to become familiar with our strategy and policy. Sudden policing is not effective. Greece will gradually change for the better, becoming more friendly, more civilized and more hospitable. We have the powers. In fact, next month interministerial inspection teams will be combing the country. Over the summer, there were about 580 inspections that arrived at very interesting conclusions. Some fines were imposed. Teams comprising members of the Culture, Finance, Tourism Development and Public Order ministries will be combing the countryside. The inspections that had to be done in the summer were completed, and there has been a period of preparing people for the new concepts regarding the new model for Greek tourism. (1) These articles first appeared in the October 9 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.