Greece seeks to diversify tourism

Sunny skies and sandy beaches have for decades earned Greece’s reputation as a leading travel destination, but now the country says its tourism strategy needs a change of focus to stay ahead of the game. Scenic hikes for the hardy, traditional farm produce for the selective and religious relics for the pious are among a hatful of ideas brought forward to extend the Greek travel scene to an all-season level. «Greece has the ability to move beyond the sea and sun model, and to become a leading all-year-round European destination,» Tourism Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia told an alternative tourism conference in the northern Greek city of Ioannina on June 16. «Our country cannot hope to develop its tourism sector by using outdated methods,» she added. «New products (are needed).» It is a message that the Tourism Ministry has been repeating over recent weeks, trying to shift the emphasis to regions mainly in the poorer Greek north, rich in folk culture and unspoilt natural beauty but also in need of jobs during the winter months. And although the authorities deny that Greece faces any specific challenge from neighboring destinations, Croatia’s numbers – 10 million tourists in 2005, more than twice its population – have not gone unnoticed. Meanwhile, Greece’s own figures stagnated just under the 15-million mark from 2001 onward. «Everybody knows the Aegean Sea islands… but there is another Greece that few people have seen,» said Brigitta Papastavrou, president and CEO of Agrotouristiki SA, a semi-state organization trying to build up a network of alternative tourism destinations around the country. «Right now, visitors to the Greek countryside can only spend money on food and accommodation. But in Italy and Spain, you can find something on which to spend your money even in the smallest village.» Greece has a rare advantage in combining different types of landscape over relatively short distances, says Papastavrou. «We recently took 60 tour operators around the Ioannina region in northwestern Greece to the ravines, rivers and monasteries, and they were amazed that so many sights could be found over such a small radius,» she said. Greek authorities say they are working on even more proposals, including a plan to develop some 170 mineral water springs currently spouting in near-obscurity. In response, tourism industry insiders say that such intentions are admirable, but their implementation is too often stymied by poor coordination and lack of planning. «Twelve-month tourism in Greece is a utopia under today’s situation, unless there is a complete overhaul,» said George Drakopoulos, general manager of the Union of Greek Tourist Enterprises (SETE). One key concern involves the country’s peripheral airports, many of which have already reached saturation point, according to SETE. «We need to ensure access,» said Drakopoulos. «A destination without a direct air link will not be chosen over another which has one.» The SETE official also observed that «staying open all year round just to show the market that you’re staying open is no way to make your mark.» «Let’s focus on areas that have a life in winter first, and then we can move to others,» he said. Other needs are more mundane – out of just over 9,000 hotels and camping sites registered with the Greek chamber of hotels (XEE), 5,000 do not have a computer and around 1,600 are without fax machines. And Greece’s plan to offer tours off the beaten trail could backfire under the current state of its rural roads. Last month, the Greek technical chamber noted that most of this network was laid out 30-40 years ago, has been poorly maintained since, and has inadequate signage to boot. «Signs for visitors are extremely bad… they create insecurity… and people can really get lost,» Papastavrou said. «The Greek tourism organization is currently studying how to improve the situation.» Greece registered some 14.2 million arrivals in 2004 – the year it hosted the Olympic Games – which constitutes the last measurement made available by the national statistics service. Figures for 2005 are still pending, with industry sources estimating a rise of 4-5 percent over the previous year for an estimate of over 14.8 million.