The Zagori Excellence Network, or ZEN, is a modern initiative that aims to promote Zagorochoria, an area encompassing 45 villages in the Pindus mountain range in Greece’s northwestern Epirus region, in Greece as well as abroad. It is a collaborative project involving tourism, catering and outdoor activities businesses that have seen revenues decline as a result of the ongoing debt crisis.
The project started in Ano Pedina, a village in Central Zagori and was the brainchild of Yiannis Skordilis, the owner of Amaryllis guesthouse. In a way, however, the network had already begun to form before its founders realized. “Those of us who got together [via ZEN] mostly knew each other through our customers,” says Vassilis Katsoupas. “A customer would walk into my restaurant in Vitsa and say, ‘You were recommended by Papaevangelou in Papingo.’ I did not even know Papaevangelou back then. So in a way we founded a network that was already there,” Katsoupas added.
We chat over a red Zagori wine on a quiet evening in the restaurant of the Pirrion hotel in Ano Pedina. We also get to meet other members of the network: Our friendly hosts Eleni and Xenofontas Trakis and Nikos Petsios from Zagori Suites in Vitsa. Alexis Stratsianis, 35, moved to the village two years ago to take over the family guesthouse, Primoula. He is one of ZEN’s biggest supporters. “If I want to advertise my guesthouse abroad, then I am going to need a huge budget. But if instead we promote the region as a whole, the number of visitors who come here will gradually grow and my own guesthouse will benefit as well,” he explains.
Zagori is indeed endowed with an abundance of natural beauty. No less important, it has preserved its traditional architecture with the region’s characteristic slate roofs. Here lies the breathtaking Vikos Gorge, the clear waters of Voidomatis River, the peak of Astraka. The members of ZEN are also connected by their love of nature and respect for each other as tourism professionals.
Achilles Papaefthimiou of Alpine Zone, a company that specializes in outdoor activities, has 17 years of experience. He has worked with tourist offices for a number of years but has chosen to join ZEN because, as he says, it represents “a hallmark of excellence.” “You can better support your business when you belong to a group of outstanding businesses. Sure, attempts were made in the past to set up clusters, but teamwork is not Greeks’ strongest point. We’d rather each wave our own flag,” he says.
Dionysis Stefanou, who runs a taverna called Riza in Elati, adds, “You will never experience economic growth if you only care about filling your own hotel or taverna.” A delicious-smelling savory pie (for which the region is well known), roasted eggplant and some amazing-looking lamb prepared by Stefanou lie on the table waiting for us to tuck in. The food leaves no question about the quality – one of ZEN’s key ingredients.
“We have to keep the balance,” says Alexandros Kallatzis, another member of the network. His hotel, Kipi Suites, has enjoyed two strong consecutive seasons. Only 15 percent of the bookings were made by Greeks while the rest were comprised Australians, Germans and Israelis.
“If a visitor liked my shop but not Zagori, well that’s not good enough,” he says. “It is important that the whole region becomes more attractive. One key problem that we are facing, for example, is that there is no airport in the area.” Meanwhile, locals have to deal with less challenging but crucial problems like the lack of ATMs in Zagorochoria.
We did find one skeptic. “I could not see how a network of this sort would be of benefit for our own business,” says Spyros Tsoumanis, who owns the Astra taverna and guesthouse. Nevertheless he joined the network because, as he says, “all the other members were known for running quality businesses. I did not want to take a negative stance.”
ZEN has been up and running since February 2014. Some of its members still haven’t seen any tangible results. And several problems remain to be tackled. Some of these are being handled by Concierge, a company which is responsible for coordinating and communicating the project.
“It’s good to get some professional advice when it comes to this sort of project,” says CEO Dimitris Maziotis. “In that way you can solve problems without getting swept up in personal issues. We are seeking to promote the Zagorochoria brand, regardless of whether the benefits spill over to everyone, be they members of ZEN or not.”
One example is the installation of a telephone booth halfway along the trail that goes through the Vikos Gorge so hikers feel a bit safer. “The brand name is good, and so is the site. And they do have some pioneering ideas,” says Alexis Stratsianis. “They want to set up a light festival like the one in Denmark.” They also say that Greek visitors are more likely to return, so the aim should not be to exclusively draw visitors from abroad.
Domestic tourism has recently waned while the number of international visitors is rising. Giorgos Poulopoulos, of Trekking Hellas’s Ioannina branch, is expecting a group from Israel. They will stay for eight days, hiking from village to village. Most of the clients are German, French, Dutch and American. “Greeks, particularly those in their mid-30s, have started to develop an interest in the treks,” says Giorgos. He also talks about the decline in domestic tourism. “Zagori has this image of being an expensive destination as prices did indeed use to be on the high side. Now prices are reasonable and the infrastructure is good. Especially in the ZEN network, the quality of services is excellent.”
For more information, visit www.z-e-n.gr.
* This article first appeared in the October 19 issue of K, Kathimerini’s weekly supplement.