Last year was a record year for Greece’s tourism sector – reaching 30.5 million visitors for the first time ever. This year, the country expects 32.5 million visitors and is on track to meet that goal. For the first five months of 2018, there was a 19.7 percent increase in visitors, compared to 2017. So what is this small Mediterranean nation doing right?
In 2015, a former athlete and top model – who had been a member of the Hellenic Parliament since 2004 – took the helm of the Tourism Ministry. Ms. Elena Kountoura, a member of the Independent Greeks party, hit the ground running and implemented a new tourism strategy for Greece: 365-days destination. The idea was to promote different areas in Greece that have not always been at the forefront of tourists’ minds and demonstrate that the country is more than just a summer hotspot.
From Halkidiki in the North, with its Mediterranean forests that open into sandy beaches, to the Peloponnese Peninsula in the South, with mammoth mountains in the interior and spectacular beaches, to the Cyclades Islands in the Southeast, with beautiful white houses and classic blue windows and doors, “Greece is a small paradise on earth”, said Kountoura with a bright smile.
Even in the winter, the sun shines on Greece. “You go and you ski in beautiful ski resorts with the sun, which we have 365 days year”, explained Kountoura, “and you drive 20 minutes down to the beach and you actually can swim, or you can stay in the beautiful restaurant in the seaside tavern and enjoy the Greek, very healthy, nutritious gastronomy”.
The 365-days tourism strategy is proving fruitful. Since 2015, tourist arrivals and revenues have been increasing, leading to huge growth in the country’s airports. The airport in Naxos has grown 344 percent and the one in Athens has grown by about 70 percent.
“Tourism is the agent for growth, and it’s also the bridge”, Kountoura remarked, listing a number of sectors impacted by the Greek tourism industry, including transportation, real estate, agrifood, gastronomy, and entertainment.
Indeed, tourism accounts for 20 percent of Greek GDP and one million jobs, according to official statistics. Unofficially, if one looks at both the direct and indirect effects of tourism, it makes up more than 27 percent of Greek GDP and more than 48.5 billion euros in revenue, said Kountoura.
That is why the new tourism strategy also includes partnerships with key airlines and tour operators, a consolidated public-private sector approach, and a regional policy for tourism.
“We encourage all this cooperation across borders”, Kountoura noted, explaining that tourists, from China for example, are very curious and want to visit different places – not just Greece. “If they’re coming on such a long trip, they want to see different countries, they want to see different cultures, so definitely we encourage these kinds of projects”.
Kountoura added, “The Mediterranean is a unique destination and Greece, definitely, is a protagonist”. After all, Greece is the country where democracy and the Olympic Games were born; it is the country of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; it is a country of philosophy and art; and along with its ancient history, it is also a country of modern culture and gourmet cuisine, with extremely welcoming and hospitable inhabitants.
The UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) publicly recognised this when UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai said during a visit to Athens in 2017: “Greece is one of the most popular and attractive global destinations, which enhances its international appeal and continues to record high performance … Over the last two years, Greece has successfully addressed all challenges by implementing a new tourism policy focused on extending the travel season, promoting new thematic products, opening new markets, boosting connectivity, promoting new Greek destinations and attracting new tourism investments. The result is a major improvement of Greece’s image around the world”.
Kountoura works very closely with international bodies, like the UNWTO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to promote the field of tourism and increase Greece’s voice on the international stage.
Over the next two years, through 2020, she plans to establish Greece as a “Top 5” global tourism destination. To achieve this, she is focusing on attracting more high-value tourists and investments to Greece and developing the country’s marinas and its cruise sector.
“We have more than 20 ports, so we work also with the other ministries for developing and upgrading all the infrastructure, such as roads, ports, and even airports, and of course we want to create dynamic packages for all the thematic … projects, excursions, and also anything that can create new authentic experiences”, Kountoura explained.
Additionally, Kountoura said that tourism should be included in the European Commission’s post-2020 budget, which is being discussed and decided upon this year. Fortunately, “we had the opportunity to negotiate and explain why tourism should be really a priority also for the European Parliament”, she said. With any luck, this growing industry will also get a share of the future financial funds.
For now, Kountoura will continue promoting Greece as a tourist and investment destination to travellers around the world with her big smile and genuine love for her country.