Culture a draw for visitors to Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki has not managed to attract large-scale tourism, even though it has the cultural weight to make it an appealing destination. While the northern port city’s museums and monuments have seen visitor numbers rise in the past two years, no efforts have been made to encourage mass tourism. The city’s Byzantine and Jewish history appeal to theme-based tourism, confirming the views of European Center of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments director Anastasia Tourta. She says today’s active tourists look for experiences offering substance and strong emotional content, «in other words, a myth,» which she pinpoints as «the basic element in shaping a destination’s profile on the international market.» In recent years Thessaloniki has seen much interest from Balkan tourists. The basilica of the Aghios Demetrios Church, listed by Unesco as a world heritage site, attracts some 500,000 visitors a year, while over 300,000 see the Rotonda of St George. Aghios Demetrios is the most popular destination in the city for religious tourism, which attracts visitors mainly from Russia, Serbia and schools in Istanbul. The basilica is well known, explained Melina Paisidiou, head of the 9th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, «as it is often filmed by foreign television channels for documentaries on Macedonia or the travels of St Paul.» All 16 Early Christian and Byzantine monuments, as well the city’s walls, also listed by Unesco, attract many tourists. Visitor numbers are not available for all of them as most of the churches are functioning parish churches rather than museums. The only church with fewer visitors than it deserves is Aghios Nikolaos ton Orfanon, which Paisidiou attributes to its out-of-the-way location. While the Eptapyrgio Fortress (castle of the seven towers) is a Byzantine monument, its use as a prison has made people associate it with modern Greece and it receives fewer visitors. The museums of Thessaloniki draw many visitors, as does the archaeological site of Vergina, which recorded 190,000 ticket sales in both 2009 and 2008. Eighty percent of the city’s residents believe that the gold treasures of Vergina are still in Salonica, even though they were returned 13 years ago to the site, where they have been reunited with other impressive finds. Even without those treasures, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki attracts many visitors, said its director Polyxeni Veleni: 70,000 in 2008, rising to 105,000 in 2009 – an increase of 35,000 in visitor numbers. While more than 60,000 climbed the landmark White Tower between May and November 2009, 50,000 visited the Byzantine Museum over the whole year. Local residents are also interested in the White Tower, said archaeologist Dimitris Nalmpantis, who is the director of the Museum of Byzantine Culture. It is not only the permanent exhibition devoted to the city’s modern history that appeals to them, he explained, but also the opportunity to see a 500-year-old construction and its views of the city and the sea. It gets busy, especially on Sundays, when visitors wait in line for up to an hour. More than 70,000 visitors and thousands of schoolchildren saw the five major exhibitions at the State Museum of Contemporary Art; of that number 54,098 attended the Biennale. Visitor numbers for the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art rose from 51,541 in 2008 to 57,000 in 2009. The Tellogleio Foundation of Art attracted 90,000 last year, 70,000 of whom saw the Joan Miro exhibition. The Jewish Museum, which had 4,800 visitors in 2009, compared with 4,000 the previous year, is one site in Thessaloniki that does attract international visitors. Most are Jews from Israel, the USA and Turkey. Some have come to explore their roots, while others want to see the city that was once home to a large Jewish population.

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