I was on holiday at one of Greece’s top tourism destinations many years ago, looking for a taverna with a small group of friends where we could enjoy decent, traditional Greek food. We tried three or four different places before we decided that it was a lost cause. Even the Greek salad, as foreigners refer to our classic “horiatiki,” was only available in various mass-produced, flavorless versions.
A lot has changed for the better since then as a new generation took over. The “Greek breakfast” was developed at hotels and the children of taverna owners across the country evolved the businesses by seeking out high-quality artisanal products and ingredients, lost recipes and the country’s best wines. Most importantly, they’re not trying to “sell” anything more than what their grandparents offered in times gone by: a combination of tradition, clean flavors and a relaxed atmosphere. Greeks and foreigners love this combination and, when done right, there’s nothing like it anywhere else.
A lot of the culinary trends that are hot stuff in countries like the United States have been around in Greece for decades. It’s not slow food or farm to table; just vegetables from the family patch and a laid-back way of life.
We are entering a new phase in tourist development as the pandemic radically changes the world tourism map, drifting away from volume and buzz to put more emphasis on values, aesthetics and the bond that every country has with its land and its traditions. These are things that are innate to Greeks however, things we know how to pitch when we let our better selves take over. Because the sad fact is that there is another self: one that is looking to make a quick buck, who lacks any sensitivity.
We are lucky to still have places that survived the cataclysm of rampant construction and package tourism that began in the 1970s. Some destinations are, unfortunately, almost lost and will take a long time to recover. Others are on the cusp of yielding to pressure that may take them down a path they may never find their way back from.
Yet there are many shining examples across Greece that show us that we can rise to the new challenge. From higgledy-piggledy rooms-to-let we’re moving on to hotels that respect the environment and local traditions. Small agricultural and manufacturing cooperatives are doing wonders. Young people are exploring and investing in the networks of footpaths in the countryside once used by their great-grandparents. And winemakers across the country are building a reputation for top-notch work.
Unlike the sprint of get-rich-quick tourism, however, good-quality tourism is a marathon that takes time and effort to yield results. As one of the only tourism-dependent countries not to have developed good tourism schools, we also need more trained professionals.
I am optimistic. Greece is en vogue again, and not just for waiters who shout “opa!” and set cheese on fire. We have a secret recipe after all: It is the sun mixed with our relaxed and occasionally mad character, helping all the bad things go away.