Tapping into a multicultural history

If there was one thing that drew the attention of foreign observers during the November municipal elections, it was the election of Yiannis Boutaris as mayor of Thessaloniki. Greece’s Balkan neighbors welcomed his victory as a development that will make Greece’s second-largest city more attractive in many different ways and pull it out of its self-imposed isolation. A recent New York Times article ranked Thessaloniki among «The 41 Places to Go in 2011,» noting Boutaris’s pledges to promote culture and tourism with a series of initiatives. Turkey’s popular daily newspaper Sabah and NTV television network hosted interviews with the newly elected mayor, as did Utrinski Vesnik, a respected newspaper in Skopje. Boutaris’s victory was heralded by media across the Balkans as well as in Israel. This is no coincidence. Ever since his years as a municipal adviser, coming from a minor party, Boutaris had repeatedly said that if elected mayor he would open up Thessaloniki to its neighbors and promote the city’s long-hidden multicultural face. Boutaris reiterated this promise in his first statements after being elected mayor and he soon received official invitations to visit Istanbul and Kosovo. In early February, he is expected to travel to Tel Aviv in a bid to attract tourists, making use of the historic ties between Israel and Thessaloniki. Some self-styled patriots have already expressed misgivings about Boutaris’s «suspicious» overtures. Things are simple. Boutaris’s campaign to turn Thessaloniki into a first-class tourist destination, particularly for the people of the Balkans and Southeast Europe, with which the city has traditionally enjoyed economic and cultural ties, is aimed at bringing some money into the city. How is he going to achieve that? By capitalizing on Thessaloniki’s multicultural wealth, its history and the natural beauty of the broader region. It’s what Turkey has been doing for years, attracting thousands of Greeks to Istanbul, Trabzon, Cappadocia and Smyrna.