Greek tourism was sent into shutdown by the coronavirus just as it had been taking off. The epidemic took a particularly heavy toll on a new breed of businesspeople who had reached a whole new level of professionalism and quality. It would be premature to say how long it will take before foreign visitor numbers return to 2019 levels.
Experts say this will not happen before 2022 or 2023. After all, no one really knows if people around the world will quickly go back to their previous travel habits or if the whole travel culture will change.
Tough and unfair as the Covid-19 damage may be, it has given us a unique opportunity to rethink Greece's tourism product. This is something we actually need. Emerging from a major economic crisis, we treated tourism as a magic wand that could spur growth. There was neither the time nor the willingness for discussion and research.
Too many issues await answers. Do we want to impose restrictions on destinations that attract record numbers of tourists? And would that mean imposing extra charges per passenger or placing a cap on the maximum daily number of visitors? These questions are being tackled by other European countries (and beyond). Greece must join the conversation in spite of opposition from vested interests which are resisting all change.
This is also an opportunity to revisit other important issues, such as traffic in Athens and other cities. The subject requires a scientific approach and must not be treated in the haphazard manner seen of late. Can, for example, the capital’s southern coast take the extra traffic strain that will be caused by the Elliniko project? If not, we need to examine the alternatives before Athens turns into Istanbul, where getting from one place to another is usually a challenge.
For years, we treated cruise tourism as a holy grail. But does it produce the revenue we want, or does it simply add a load of tourists without benefiting local communities and the Greek economy? Another issue is the transformation of Athens neighborhoods. Part of the capital’s recent appeal had to do with the fact that the historic center was being developed in an alternative way that appeared to protect its authenticity. This is something to be cherished. Athens found itself being described as the new Berlin because it offered alternative experiences, scents and tastes – not yet another Starbucks in the place of the old kafeneio.
Remarkable progress has been made in Greek tourism, wine and gastronomy – there is no comparison with previous decades. The challenge now is to plan for the future and avoid mistakes. Greece is a unique destination. Ironically, the virus has also given us a unique and unexpected opportunity for a strategic and pragmatic rethink.