Tourism industry at critical crossroads

Greece’s tourism industry finds itself faced with the choice of sliding back into practices followed for the quarter century before the 2004 Olympics, or choosing a form of sustainable growth more appropriate for a modern tourism industry, one that supports business activity while respecting the country’s environment and cultural heritage. According to a recent observation by the World Travel and Tourism Council, Greece exploits just 15 percent of its tourism potential. Of course, that does not mean that the best results have been achieved within that 15 percent, nor that the remaining 85 percent should be «exploited» in haste. This year Greece is one of the world’s profitable tourism destinations. For the second year in a row, tourism arrivals will mark an increase, following the deep crisis the industry found itself in from 2001-2004. Naturally it received a major boost from the success of the Athens Olympics in 2004, as well as from an extensive advertising campaign by the Ministry for Tourism Development and the Greek National Tourism Organization in the largest markets abroad. While some 13 million foreigners visited Greece in 2004, last year there were 5 percent more, with a similar increase expected this year. Yet past experience has shown that tourist boom years usually result in the authorities resting on their laurels. Simply seeking to boost tourism in terms of increased figures without raising the quality, along with the practice of earning a quick buck in just three months of the year as the only way to survive as a business, the disparate decision-making centers which make no attempts to coordinate their actions, the rejection of serious investment proposals and the uncontrolled growth of tourist accommodation facilities are just some of the problems within the industry that have their roots in the 1980s and 1990s. Over the past two-and-a-half years, the government has made some attempt to deal with these problems but the results have not been as good as expected. The setting up of the Tourism Development Ministry in 2004, the year of the Olympics, along with the public relations strategy of 2004-2005 have been initial steps toward redressing the balance. Moreover, a start was made in recording the problems in all sectors of the tourism economy and in preparing a legislative framework to deal with them. Co-responsibility What has become clear is the complex web of responsibility on the part of the state, whether at the level of central, regional or municipal authorities, for the image Greece has as a tourist destination. Even the prime minister, during his recent speech at a conference of the Hellenic Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies, made special reference to the co-responsibility of everyone actively involved in the effort to improve the country’s tourism industry. «The challenge for quality and competitiveness depends on the entirety of impressions a visitor has, every step of the way. In that we all have duties and obligations: the state, local government, local communities, businesses and workers,» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said. This approach is different from that adopted in the past, chiefly from 1994-2004, when there were two clear goals. On the one hand, solutions were continually being postponed; on the other, attempts were made to gloss over weaknesses. The basis of every tourism industry is the accommodation provided for visitors, whether hotels, rooms for rent, agrotourism units or other. In 1994, purely for the purpose of making more money, all tourist accommodation was give legal status without any attempt to rectify violations of the building code. As a result, about 50 percent of the country’s 9,000 hotels are in violation of the code, to a lesser or greater degree. The same applies to rooms for rent. In an attempt to reduce the negative image, tourism figures were artificially boosted by including economic immigrants in the foreign arrivals. Today the greatest challenge for the government’s services is to speedily implement policies that will present an honest image of Greek tourism. Coordination between ministries is absolutely essential in this respect, particularly considering the fact that the signatures of 10 ministers were needed, apart from that of the tourism development minister, to settle matters relating to tourism included in the draft law soon to be tabled in Parliament. For the Olympics, the entire government was mobilized under the direction of one coordinating body. Success was also achieved in the sector of accommodation with the benefits being reaped today. In August 2004, the country was host to about 2 million foreigners who have all gone on to become the best ambassadors for the Greek tourism industry. Between May and October, about 18 million people, Greeks and foreigners, holiday in Greece. That figure alone should prompt the state to improve the current situation, and soon, given that new laws take some time to be enacted. A coordinating body similar to that in place for the Olympics, meeting on a regular basis, particularly during the tourist season, would certainly provide more solutions than the existing ones as far as speed is concerned. Even though the minister, Fanni Palli-Petralia, has excellent relations with the rest of the Cabinet, facilitating decision making, this should be guaranteed by institutional means over at least a 10-year period for the purposes of long-term policy making. In the future, the political head of the most profitable sector of the Greek economy should have the power to intervene and solve problems irrespective of his or her relations with colleagues.