One of Greece’s greatest exports

One of Greece’s greatest exports

The appointment of Haris Theocharis as minister of tourism is very welcome. It is also challenging. This is the same Theocharis who was head-hunted from the private sector to oversee the system of tax collection in 2013-14. He resigned due, according to officialese, to “political interference.” He then became a political animal, wandering among the independent parties until last year he was lured into New Democracy.

As head of what is probably Greece’s most important ministry, Theocharis has identified several areas where tourism can be both developed and protected – a difficult balance to achieve. Recent information relating to the emergent site at Philippi indicates that there is a law of diminishing returns for increasing access to ancient monuments. The more infrastructure you provide to facilitate visitors, the greater the danger of environmental damage. And the plight of Santorini, which is saturated beyond endurance or resources by exponential tourism, is well-known.

And now the new president of the Greek National Tourism Organization is Angela Gerekou who, in a previous existence, was junior minister of culture and tourism in the PASOK government 2009-10. In 2015 she jumped ship from center-left PASOK to center-right New Democracy.

Between them, Theocharis and Gerekou have the task of improving the profile of Greece as a tourism destination. Will they be talking to Lina Mendoni, the new culture minister? If, as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced, Greece’s cultural profile is to be revamped by Mendoni, then surely they should all be huddling together to share plans and solutions? They have a vested interest in complementary strategies to exploit Greece’s cultural strengths. But cabinet rivalry is always stronger than cooperation. And, more significantly, harnessing the public and private sectors, which Theocharis has pledged to do, is barely conceivable. His experience in the tax office must tell him that much.

I recently entertained an international group for a discussion of “Islands of the Mind” here in Corfu – from Canada, the USA, Ireland, Australia, India, Finland and Israel. University professors, writers and journalists, they were deeply impressed by the gastronomy, wine and beers, and could be effective ambassadors for Greece. But they complained that what they found here is almost unknown outside Greece, and asked why there are no gastronomic tours to open up the amazing strengths of regional varieties. It’s one of the areas where culture and tourism could combine effectively.

Some of those visitors checked into a Corfu hotel to be “greeted” (if you can call it that) by a surly, uncooperative receptionist whose sole aim in life, it seemed, was to keep the hotel free of residents. She questioned their reservations, refused to give them the information packs which they knew were awaiting them at reception, and could not be bothered to deal with complaints about cleanliness of the rooms.

This crucial person is the first face of the Greek hotel industry. One of Theocharis’ and Gerekou’s tasks should be to ensure that the hotel training system includes the basics of “meet and greet” – smile, say “Welcome,” and be helpful. Don’t snarl like a Rottweiler or act as if you had better things to do.

Festivals and tours for gastronomy, wine, music of all specialities, film and literature exist, but they are neither coordinated nor do they receive any meaningful stimulus from government agencies.

Here in Corfu we have the finest Medusa in all of Greece, visible again after a five-year disappearance which can be explained only in terms of departmental dysfunction. We have one of the best craft microbreweries in Greece. We have the family home, birthplace and burial place of Ioannis Kapodistrias, first president of Greece (1827-31). We have the homes of members of the Theotokis family who gave Greece one of its finest writers and several of its politicians (and, today, one of its best wineries). We have the only museum of Asian art in Greece. We have the only public garden commemorating two brothers, Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, whose writings about Corfu inspired the recent four-year TV series “The Durrells.” We have the example of the 1716 Ottoman siege when Corfu was identified as “the Bastion of Europe.” We have history, culture, cuisine – and we have know-how.

What will Angela Gerekou, a Corfiot, do to promote her island as part of a public-private strategy for developing niche markets in the cultural area which the Corfu example offers her? As junior minister Gerekou spoke much of enhancing Greece as a tourist destination by such means, but did little. A plan I submitted to her office for Corfu as a cultural hub was not even considered because, I was told, it was received on the wrong date. So much for flexibility.

But the emphasis is always likely to favor private investment in resorts which are essentially anti-culture, anti-environment and anti-social. The impending destruction of the Erimitis habitat in Corfu will be one of the most intrusive and irresponsible “developments.” Its publicity cites the developers’ “full respect of the island’s character” and “environmental responsibility,” while it is alleged, against all reason and reality, that “the influx of affluent visitors combined with all-inclusive packages will further enhance the touristic profile of Corfu.” To which the impolite answer is “bullshit.” All-inclusive packages ensure that these “affluent visitors” remain within the precincts, contributing almost nothing to the local economy.

Greece, to be more polite, is the “grande horizontale” – the courtesan of culture and tourism, power without responsibility. And the profit? It’s one of Greece’s greatest exports.

Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”

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