A policy for tourism

Tourism is often described as Greece’s «heavy industry» making a substantial contribution to state revenues and employment. It naturally ranks high in every government’s priorities. The decision by the New Democracy government to establish a Ministry of Tourism fulfilled an outstanding need at the administrative level, but the move is only a first step toward remedying the causes of the existing crisis. The decline in Greek tourism is not a passing phase. If that were so, the problem could be tackled with a better campaign like the one used to advertise the Athens Olympic Games. Such marketing is necessary but falls short of arresting the decline, now in its fourth year. The reasons behind the crisis are structural and therefore demand more radical action. Greece is gifted with unique natural beauty – a great asset in attracting high-income tourists from abroad. It is no coincidence that islands such as Santorini and Myconos in previous decades attracted celebrities and high-income visitors. These days, the Aegean and Ionian seas mostly host low-budget tourists, reaping the bitter fruit of years of unplanned tourist development. In recent years, government ministers have been rehashing the cliche that Greece must shift to big-budget tourism. But these proved empty words. Any steps were soon caught up in red tape and other obstacles. One cannot expect to attract high-spending tourists without offering the services that they can find at the same cost in other countries. Another fundamental parameter is the global climate of insecurity which has taken root in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. Greece is unfortunate to be hosting the Games in a volatile international environment that will compromise revenue from incoming visitors whose numbers are unlikely to match even the most modest forecasts. Fear, often bordering on hysteria, has pushed the West’s high earners toward a different type of holidays which Greece is not prepared to offer. The country has few luxury resorts and infrastructure is mostly suited to low- and medium-income visitors. The predominance of large foreign travel agencies has pushed the level further down. The global economic slowdown has also taken its toll, shrinking families’ holiday budget across Europe. Greece is constantly losing ground as it has to compete at the level of mass tourism against cheaper destinations. The government must quickly tackle the problem by hammering out a new tourism strategy.