It’s mid-January, the new year has begun and Heraklion, the Cretan capital, is teeming with tourists – most of them silver-haired. In Rhodes, seniors are soaking up the rays in the island’s elegant port city, with many enjoying trips that began in November.
These scenes are not real – at least not yet. Vassilis Kikilias, Greece’s tourism minister, hopes they will be soon as he seeks to make the most of an energy crisis, soaring bills and global uncertainty. “Our doors are open for 12 months, our friends from northern Europe should know that. They should come here for the winter.
Next week, Athens will launch a €20m (£17.5m) advertising campaign urging pensioners to do just that. “Do you want to feel 20 again? asks one of the billboards set to appear in London and other continental capitals. “With warm winter temperatures of up to 20C, Greece is the place to be,” he proclaims, alongside an image of an elderly couple lounging on a yacht , wine glasses in hand.
Greece is not the only place where citizens of colder climes are warmly greeted. Tour operators in Alicante in southern Spain and the Canary Islands are banking on ‘spa tourism’ to persuade northern Europeans facing skyrocketing bills to leave their homes and spend the winter in the sun .
“From what we see, people realize that it is cheaper to come here than to put the heating on at home,” said Miguel Ángel Sotillos, president of the Spanish federation of tourist apartments.
Kikilias spent months working on Greece’s initiative. In September, he traveled to Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Stockholm to spread the word, talking to pension fund managers, federations, tour operators and air carriers ready to fly to Greek destinations while throughout the winter.
“There will be clusters linked by direct flights with hotels and restaurants that are ready to stay open,” he told the Observer. “What we’re saying is that it might be cheaper to turn off the heat in our house and come here. It’s that simple.”
Greece has had a surprisingly buoyant tourist season, with revenues and arrivals expected to surpass those of 2019 before the pandemic, a record year in which the country attracted some 33.1 million people and more than 18 billion euros in tourist receipts.
Visiting celebrities and Hollywood stars not only provided free publicity but also helped strengthen ties with the United States. The first direct US flight – one of nine unprecedented daily flights – landed in Athens from New York on March 8, kicking off a market credited with promoting a sector that accounts for 25% of the GDP and one in five jobs.
But the post-pandemic surge has not been without criticism. Accusations of overtourism have been high, especially on the more popular islands and in Athens, where visitor numbers topped 4 million in August alone.
Kikilias agrees that the quest to attract holidaymakers who wouldn’t normally visit during the hot summer months is also linked to the desire to see the tourist season extended. “The infrastructure on small islands just wasn’t built to accommodate that many people,” he concedes. “There was a time when Greece was all about sun, sand and sea, which is no longer true. There was a time when it would have been difficult to imagine visitors here in the winter, but that is no longer the case either.
It is the first time that Greece has made a concerted attempt to market itself as a winter destination, with officials openly admitting the strategy is to replicate the success of Spain, long an off-season destination for retirees. Images of the Greek sunset next to radiators that might otherwise heat homes are set to feature prominently in an ad campaign that will also be digital.
“People, especially retirees, have always thought about the Western Mediterranean during the winter months,” says Dimitris Maziotis, public relations strategist and senior Kikilias assistant who helped design the campaign. “What we’re saying is the Eastern Mediterranean is here too.”
As part of the campaign, airlines and tour operators will receive funds both to advertise Greece and to maintain routes through the winter months. In a country that has yet to appoint a czar to champion policies for the elderly – despite having one of the oldest populations in the EU – or has retirement villages or housing that can accommodate the third age, the options are necessarily limited.
Cities with good hospitals and medical care will be among the destinations that will be promoted. “Athens, Thessaloniki, Rhodes, Kos and Crete are on the list,” says Maziotis. “They’re not only bigger, with hotels that will stay open, but in the case of Crete, they’re also warmer.”
The initiative, he adds, will also target digital nomads and couples with preschoolers.
Initial response to the prospect of a sunny winter as Europe heads into November has been promising. Cecilie Eslander, chief executive of Stockholm-based Grand Tours, which is owned by a federation of 300,000 older people, said the reaction to the news had been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s darker and colder here, and Greece is always popular,” she said, days after meeting Kikilias in the Swedish capital. “I think Norwegians and Swedes would love to visit, but it’s still Spain in winter, not Greece, and that’s partly because most hotels have been closed. Now that we know, we have planned a walking and exercise trip there with a famous Swedish TV coach at the end of October. Everyone is excited.
Additional reporting by Stephen Burgen at Barcelona