Precious capital

The sharp rise in tourist arrivals this summer is no surprise after the success of the Athens Olympics last year. The trouble-free staging of the Games, the image of Athens as a safe and hospitable city, and the aesthetic elegance of the opening ceremonies – notwithstanding the mammoth financial strain on state coffers it all produced – bequeathed huge benefits for the country. We are left with a precious legacy of worldwide fame and vast know-how. Tourism is the most obvious sector to invest this new capital. Despite government foot-dragging in determining the post-Olympic use of sports venues and despite the absence of a strategy to incorporate facilities in the tourism sector, the success of the Games coupled with this year’s robust advertising campaign have reversed the downtrend of the past four years, luring a higher number of foreign visitors to Greece. Even American tourists, whose numbers declined after a travel warning issued by the Reagan administration that damaged Greece’s reputation as a tourism destination, are back in full force for the first time since the 1980s. So the first goal, luring back foreign tourists, has been accomplished. The hardest part is to keep them coming. Satisfied visitors are potentially the best way to advertise Greece abroad. There is only one way for that to happen. We must please these people by giving them what Greece’s reputation and advertising campaigns have made them come to expect. They must get nothing less than what they paid for. Experience so far shows that Greece’s tourism product lacks honesty, endurance and stability. The memories of quick and easy profits in the golden age of the 1960s and 1970s, taking advantage of the natural and built environment, are still vivid; so are memories of the 1980s and 1990s, when Greek tourism became associated with a wild party and lifestyle image, and the drop in foreign tourists was compensated by Greek tourists who had just discovered celebrity-spotting. That was then. The tourists of today, whether foreign or Greek, are hardly impressed by a hackneyed image of Greece or glamour. Financially stressed but more educated and demanding, visitors want quality and value for money. This is what we must offer – and nothing less. We must finally see tourism for what it is. And it is Greece’s leading industry and one of its main sources of revenue, together with shipping. Tourism is neither a seasonal industry, nor a source of opportunistic gain. Hammering out a plan for tourism should be a national priority. But that demands competent policy-makers, long-term planning, vision, and collective effort. The mistakes and omissions of the current season, which found us largely unprepared, should teach us a lesson.

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