The Mediterranean is a region with an abundance of cultures, flavours, languages, and beauty. The proudest moment as citizens of the region is definitely when we get the opportunity to share the splendor of our home with those visiting – wanting to get a taste of our daily wonders. Tourism indeed is an essential tool for economic growth.
The Mediterranean.Observer got the chance to ask a couple of questions to the Minister for Tourism in Greece, Elena Kountoura, to give us a glimpse of the tourism situation in Greece, how they have been getting back on track with the means of tourism. The Minister Kountoura will be present at the Mediterranean STARS conference that is being hosted by the Mediterranean Tourism Foundation this Friday at the InterContinental Malta hotel, the Mediterranean.Observer who shall be participating in the forum discussing sustainability and coping with tourism growth.
As a country, Greece has had its hardships as of late but is now getting back on its feet. Has tourism been a contribution to this in any manner?
Οur government was the first to recognize tourism’s immense value in the national effort for economic and social prosperity, and its catalytic role in shaping a better future for our country and the Greek people.
With our long-term national tourism strategy, we increased inbound tourism by more than 35 percent in the last four years, achieving yearly rates of growth double the global average. We have been praised by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and other global institutions for our successful tourism policy that led to the best tourism performance in Greece’s history despite the adverse conditions we faced, as an example for other countries to follow. From 24 million visitors including cruise arrivals in 2014 we reached 33 million in 2018, and with year-to-year records in tourism revenue, and in all tourism figures.
The phenomenal tourism growth we mobilized, is reflected in our tourism industry double-digit increase in turnover and profitability but has also supported the Greek economy as a whole. Tourism has been the bridge for growth in other productive sectors such as transportation, trade, agriculture, food and beverage, construction, and real estate. Our tourism performance mobilized hundreds of new investments in the hospitality sector across Greece. It contributed to reducing unemployment by 10 percent in the last four years, stimulated new job creation, and today more than 1 million jobs in our country are related to tourism activity. Tourism generates directly and indirectly almost 28 percent of our GDP and up to 50 billion euros revenue and has emerged as a major driving force for our economy, creating new development prospects in this new era of growth that has begun for Greece.
How has Greece gotten the tourism sector back on track?
Our strategy that we designed and implemented since 2015 placed sustainable tourism at its core. We aimed to establish Greece as an attractive 365-day destination globally, that stands out for its unique authentic travel experiences. Our goal has now become a reality, and the benefits of our tourism growth have spread, supporting local communities across the country. We initiated strategic partnerships with leading tour operators, through which we ensured increasing our tourism shares steadily, about 2 million more tourist arrivals every year. We extended the traditional summer season from March to November, and enhanced tourism in the winter months, more than 20 percent increase in arrivals each year.
We introduced new Greek destinations and developed new thematic tourism products that attract visitors year-round. We also succeeded in increasing air connectivity with our traditional but also new European and long-haul markets of higher spending power that we opened, such as China, Middle East, India, the United States, and Canada, from which we have double-digit growth. And by doing so, we mobilized a surge in new tourism investments from domestic and international funds and investors. More than 400 projects in 4- and 5-star hotels that we supported to initiate, created more than 50,000 new beds in the last four years, and more are expected to be launched in 2019, responding to the growing demand. Even more, we strengthened Greece’s active role in shaping tourism policies in the global level, as an elected member for the first time in the UNWTO’s executive council, and with stronger presence and collaboration with OECD and other major institutions in the global efforts to promote sustainable and inclusive tourism growth.
Greece has been a place of interest since antiquity. How has this remained so constant throughout the ages?
Greece is the birthplace of Democracy, of the Olympic Games and the Authentic Marathon. The homeland of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, of Great Thinkers that have shaped the Western Thought, and of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine.
Being one of the most ancient civilizations, Greece carries enormous history and culture of global radiance and appeal, that is still unfolding. With 18 UNESCO archeological sites and monuments, and hundreds of museums, our country is one of the most wanted destinations to visit year-round for its outstanding cultural experiences. We have been promoting not only our cultural heritage and legacy but also modern culture. In world-class festivals and events that take place throughout the year, but also at local celebrations, our visitors discover the authentic aspects of Greece and indulge into the local identity, the tradition and customs, the beauty of each destination, and the warm hospitality that the Greek people offer generously. Tο this end, the natural beauty of our country remains intact throughout the ages, and Greece is a small paradise on earth.
In your opinion, when tourists come to Greece, what do they look for? Are there any trends that you’re noticing?
Greece has more than 100 islands and destinations, cosmopolitan but also emerging ones, our “hidden gems”, that we now promote. Our visitors choose Greece for its gorgeous beaches and its coastline of more than 16 thousand kilometers, for its crystal-clear waters, some of the safest in the world, ideal for swimming, but also for diving, yachting, and cruising. But Greece is so much more beyond the sea and sun. We have developed thematic tourism, which we supported with an innovative bill that we passed last year and promote Greece as a leading destination for authentic travel experiences, that represent the prevailing global trend. Our visitors enjoy our unique cultural routes, the rich diverse nature and outdoor activities, agritourism, our gastronomy based on the healthy yet tasty Greek diet, and the fresh local products, the wide offering in health tourism and wellness, in sports tourism and recreation, religious and pilgrimage tours. We promoted Athens and Thessaloniki as attractive city-break and short-trip destinations, for their culture and entertainment, for sightseeing and shopping, gastronomy and short getaways to nearby destinations. As a result, Athens received global awards in 2018 as the top European city-break destination, and both cities have experienced record numbers in arrivals and overnight stays year-round.
What are your plans for the tourism industry in Greece for the duration of your term as Minister of Tourism?
This is the fifth year I lead the national effort for tourism growth, and our goals are to further strengthen Greece’s leading position in the global travel map, to continue our strong momentum in tourism and maximize tourism’s positive impact in our national economy and the Greek society. We have already in place a new growth plan in tourism for the next years. We plan to launch specific programs for open businesses 365 days a year in all destinations, mature enough to support them.
We will focus on attracting new investments in four- and five-star hotels and integrated resorts, for health and wellness centers and spas and for special tourism infrastructures, such as golf courses, MICE, theme parks and marinas. At the same time, we support small and medium-sized tourism enterprises to upgrade and modernize as well as new businesses to be created through EU-funding programs we have launched. Furthermore, we are linking tourism with the agricultural sector and the agri-food industry, to increase local production and include local products as an integral part of our offering in the wider hospitality chain.
Our priority is also to support the hospitality industry for its digital transformation in becoming even more competitive and attractive in the global travel market. We also work to conclude our reforms in modernizing our public education system in tourism, because human capital is our biggest strength in tourism and a major investment in our future. Let’s not forget that tourism is all about the people and eventually it’s all about making the world a better place to live in.