Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias describes a series of measures and initiatives aimed at enhancing the Greek tourism product, while protecting the natural environment and the character of its destinations.
In this interview with Kathimerini, the former health minister who was entrusted with the tourism portfolio earlier this month reveals the first – with an American carrier – of several agreements that are underway to extend the flight season to Greece and an agreement to open connections to the UK market early next year, as well as plans to step up advertising of the Greek destination internationally.
He talks about the development of new destinations and plans to improve city travel, while also outlining the tools – which include incentives and disincentives – that will be used to tackle the overexploitation that threatens some destinations, while also making a reference. the investments and other interventions that will be required.
Kikilias further discloses that talks are underway with international groups such as Accor for the establishment of a high-level tourism education center in Greece. He also stresses that the issue of biodiversity is high on the agenda of the government and the Prime Minister, who seeks to position Greece as a world leader in the field as tourism recovers from the pandemic crisis. For this year, he estimates that Greece will see around 50% of the tourist activity it benefited from in 2019, with revenues of around 10 billion euros.
As it stands, how do you see the year evolving in terms of tourism compared to 2019?
This year brought a positive surprise: our original, but also ambitious, estimated target was to reach 50% by 2019, but all the data indicates that we will exceed it. It should be mentioned that according to data from the Bank of Greece, travel revenue in July reached 2.27 billion euros. This corresponds to 61.4% of the turnover of July 2019 when it amounted to 3.7 billion euros. Arrivals of visitors from abroad rose 240.2% compared to the same month in 2020. Data for August and September will further improve the overall picture. The locomotive of the Greek economy has given a decisive boost to growth, and this must be credited to the people of the tourism industry, to entrepreneurs, to the hundreds of thousands of employees and to all who are involved in this super -product called “Greek Tourism”. Industry experts estimate a turnover of nearly 10 billion euros for this year. And let me add an equally important thing: The quality indicators have also improved, which is good news for us because, in addition to the number of visitors, the qualitative increase has been and remains a key factor. On the basis of these facts and on condition of getting out of the pandemic, the goal for 2022 is to offer a unique tourist experience. This will be reflected not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, in tourism GDP, in the new jobs that will be created, in the arrival of new visitors who will hopefully return to the lengthening of the season.
Greece is the number one tourist destination for more and more foreign travelers. How can the country maintain this momentum and even capitalize on it?
Indeed, we note that apart from our traditional markets, new markets are added to the pool of visitors who choose Greece for their holidays, such as the Gulf countries and Israel. In order to maintain and strengthen this trend of an increasingly enlarged market, we must rely on two pillars: First, the preservation and enhancement of the quality of our tourism product offered, especially where there are problems of intense seasonality and sustainability of our infrastructures, and, on the other hand, the emergence of the different experiences and the different destinations that Greece offers to its potential visitors. The richness of the country, from its cultural heritage to its unparalleled natural beauty, must be preserved within the framework of the principles of sustainable development, while at the same time our destinations less known to foreign visitors, but equally attractive, must be put in value and gradually integrated into their choices.
We are seeing an increase in income from arrivals, a fact that points to higher caliber tourism. Can Greece maintain and further improve this profile?
I mentioned earlier the improvement of quality indicators which are – let me say it – more important than the absolute number of arrivals. We need to go beyond the one-dimensional perspective of the number of millions of arrivals and also take into account other indicators. This year the average spending of foreign visitors has increased by more than 20%, now each visitor spends more than € 600. Even if it is also due to the current situation, this indicator must remain on the rise. As on the rise should be the indicator regarding the length of stay. At the same time, we are looking to lengthen the tourist season – a crucial part of the equation for sustainable growth in the tourism sector. To cite a recent example: in our contacts with American leaders, we have ensured that flights to Greece remain operational at least until the end of this season. We will not stop there and we will try to make the season even longer.
At the same time, through discussions with the CEO of Jet2, the UK’s largest tour operator, we have reached an agreement to open the season to Greek destinations earlier and include, for the first time, Athens in these destinations.
As part of this, we plan to reallocate our marketing budget through the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) to include the autumn and winter months respectively, promote mountain destinations and strengthen hotels throughout the year. At the same time, we want to boost city tourism in big cities, as city halls have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.
You – and the Prime Minister, of course – have spoken of the need for a new model of tourism that will respect the principles of sustainability and protection of the character of destinations, but also of a greater distribution of benefits in a greater number of regions of the country over a longer period of the year. How do you hope to achieve this?
Let me start with the second part of the question. I have already mentioned that, from a strategic point of view, the continued growth of tourism must be based on the expansion of destinations. But the potential visitor will not discover them on their own, nor will they search for hidden “treasures”. This is our obligation and to achieve this, a consistent way of presenting and promoting is necessary. The information already exists, but it is not enough because it is dispersed through different channels. We want to build a network that will inform market players abroad of what will happen in the framework of the many thematic tourism actions taking place in Greece. But also in terms of geographic targeting, we attach particular importance to mainland Greece and the lesser-known islands, depending on the preservation of the authenticity and differentiation they offer to the traveler. These, combined with the emergence of alternative forms of tourism, which, contrary to popular belief, bring high added value to the entire spectrum of the Greek economy, are our main tools.
On the issue of sustainability, it is a priority for both the government and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who emphasizes the development of a strategy that places biodiversity at the heart of tourism planning. I am very satisfied because I find that institutional bodies such as the Ηellenic Chamber of Hotels, which is preparing a sustainability-based hotel certification plan, as well as the Association of Greek Tourism Companies (SETE), are moving in this direction. direction.
The example of Santorini in Greece and Venice at European level are classic examples of the problems that hypertourism phenomena can create, especially during peak periods. We will soon be able to present a program of incentives and disincentives to deter such problems.
But because you mentioned the cruises, let me remind you that in the framework of the Thessaloniki International Fair, I had the opportunity to see the port and to discuss at length the Thessaloniki project as a port of home and destination hub. The benefits will not only be limited to the large impact of growth in the city, but will significantly increase the tourism potential in the wider region. Combining the new international airport with cruises could change the map. According to diaNEOsis research, Greece could receive 1.3 billion euros in cruises, while although we are the fourth most popular destination in the industry, we are in eighth place in terms of revenues of countries from this region. activity. In the years leading up to the pandemic, Spain and Italy had received and continue to receive more than double the revenues of each cruise line compared to Greece. This must change and we have the opportunity to succeed, thanks to new infrastructure, an interconnection with modern airports and a tourist experience that will integrate all forms of tourism. The advantage of Greece lies in the many and different options that every visitor has depending on their preferences and interests.
Are you considering strategic alliances with large foreign groups such as TUI or Accor, for example, which could help us raise tourism education and training and / or attract more high added value investments in tourism infrastructure?
The requalification and improvement of skills in the tourism sector is a critical point, so it is a priority. Taking into account the fact that approximately 1 euro in 4 comes directly or indirectly from tourism and the investments which are made or will be made in the near future, we will be confronted with the needs of many employees. A large percentage of them concern highly skilled and therefore well paid jobs. In this context, exploratory contacts are already underway with important foreign institutions. There is already a first intention from Accor, one of the largest hotel groups in the world, to establish an international tourism training center in Greece.
Considering your arrival at the Ministry of Tourism in the second half of the government’s mandate, do you feel that you have enough time to implement your policies?
As Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible, of the attainable. During the 18 months of the pandemic, we implemented significant reforms, we strengthened the national health system, we designed a strong immunization program, policies that under normal circumstances would take decades to implement. Oh good. We have shown that we can act quickly and consistently. This is also my intention for tourism.