OPINION

Tourism’s great battle

It is both agonizing and exciting to see the Greek tourism sector battling to survive at this time. On the one hand, it is trying to remain standing as one problem after another hits it; on the other, we can only hope that the bad habits of the past will be swept away and we will come out of this crisis with a much-improved tourism industry and a clearer vision of where we are and where we want to be in the coming years. And what battalions of woes are upon us! They combine real worries and an image of Greece which is sometimes exaggerated, leading to a very substantial problem in terms of fewer tourists and lower revenues. The global crisis has sharply reduced the number of visitors from our most important markets: In Germany, wages have remained frozen for a decade, while Britain’s new coalition government is tackling a 12-percent budget deficit and is headed into recession. The consequences of the global crisis were compounded by the scenes of Athens burning during the riots of December 2008, after a police officer shot a teenage boy. No sooner had that image begun to fade than the true magnitude of the Greek economic crisis emerged, shaking the country to its core and turning even more visitors away. The economic crisis has played very badly in the international press. But it is not only the images of protests, violence and strikes making people wary; in our wired age, it is the news reports and personal blogs that tell the world of museums and ancient sites closed by protests, of demonstrators blocking ships’ ramps, of money wasted and time lost. On the other hand, Germans (along with other Europeans) are enraged that their countries are contributing toward the 110-billion-euro bailout of spendthrift Greeks who are portrayed as having squandered untold billions and are now unable to repay their loans or borrow more. There is also the very serious problem that the tourism sector has been very badly served by the state. Although tourism, along with shipping, is a pillar of the economy, Greece has not paid sufficient attention to promoting it well. The national tourism board still owes millions of euros to international media for last year’s advertising campaign, leaving the field wide open for all our competitors. In terms of what we want, we speak of our devotion to high-end tourism but we do not ensure that our facilities (airports, ports and bus stations) and services (from taverna restrooms to hotel rooms) are up to standard. Our Culture and Tourism Ministry has dropped the ball and allowed workers to remain unpaid while sites and museums are understaffed, forcing them to remain closed or to close early. In short, very little has been done to create an image of Greece as a premier culture destination. Britain, for example, makes sure that its museums, monuments and theaters are year-round attractions that draw millions of people to the country every day. While the two destinations cannot be compared, Greece’s ancient legacy should be enough of a draw for educated people across the world to be able to develop its cultural tourism. The crisis, however, has woken people up. For every protester who aims to torpedo Greece’s image and revenues, for every incompetent bureaucrat undermining the industry, there are hundreds of people trying to keep things moving. For the first time, we are seeing the effects of the market’s demands: lower prices and steep discounts are being offered in the hotel and transportation sectors in a bid to stay in business. People are focusing on what visitors want, and offering it to them through the Internet and other contemporary marketing tools. If the government and industry officials who should be planning strategy follow the lead of those trying to make a success of our tourism, then we will start building the foundations of a new era in this most vital part of our economy.