Washington – By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis talked about shifting to a strategy for attracting higher quality tourism to Greece building upon what has been built so far, in an interview with the Greek News on the sidelines of a conference in Washington, DC on November 11-12, organized by the “Delphi Economic Forum” and Kathimerini newspaper, saying, “We are not so interested in increasing the number of guests, and we are pleased with the one-digit increase; however, we want to focus on revenue growth, which should be higher and double-digit.”
Mr. Theoharis gave a talk,” Tourism at the Epicenter of Development,Innovation and Outreach,”and participated in a roundtable discussion at the conference.
The number of tourists in Greece will reach 30 million this year. While US traffic broke the one million (1.069.000) barrier last year, in 2019 it is expected to exceed 1.2 million. Mr. Theoharis revealed to the “Greek News” that he has given US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross a report detailing the arguments for establishing US airlines’ direct flights to Greece throughout the year and asking the US government for assistance in this regard. Mr. Theoharis expects to touch on this issue with his contacts in New York when he comes to speak at the Capital Link Annual Investment Forum on December 9.
Q. Minister, tourism in Greece during the crisis is, I believe, the only area where we have done things the right way. Where do we stand at the moment?
A. Indeed, the strategy has been faithfully followed in the past, and this is the main issue. The combination of the crisis – which has led many people to turn to tourism to provide a solution to financial problems – together with a strategy primarily pursued by my predecessor, Elena Koundoura, aimed at attracting more and more people, led to an increase in the number of tourists.
I didn’t say that this came about without problems. During this time all the quality indicators have deteriorated, because when crowds come within a short period of time and the number of visitors doubles – roughly speaking from 15 million to 30 – that means that at the average revenue per night and average number of overnight stays, the increase in tourist GDP revenue is not going to follow at the same rate.
Thus, the time has come for a change in strategy. We must steer the wheel toward tourism of higher quality, building on what has been done so far. So we’re not so interested in increasing the number of guests, and we’re happy with the single digit increase, but we want to focus on increasing revenue, which should be higher and in the double digits.
Q. Suppose the revenue increase is related to the upgrading of the hotels from three stars to four, and four to five. But there are also people who make their living offering accommodations and cheaper hotels. Will they be given incentives to upgrade, and if you can’t meet the new criteria, you close down?
A. I don’t think we should go to a “Procrastination” logic; that’s not the point. We just need to give the right incentives to move towards upgrading quality – the ‘green standards’, i.e. product viability, upgrading accessibility for the disabled and the elderly – rather than building more and bigger units.
This is the one turn we need to take. The second relates to the quality of two other factors which are critical to an increase in the overall level of service we provide.
The first is infrastructure, therefore, private investment alone is not enough; public investments must come in to help. Such as ports, roads, airports or anything else. We have seen some improvements in the past. Our airports are in much better shape due to Fraport and public investments. But we have a lot to do, especially in marinas and other similar infrastructures, such as the undeveloped thermal spring spas.
The second factor is education. We need to focus on better quality education that will enable tourism businesses to hire professionals who have through experience have learned how to behave according to the situation and not with unskilled workers, who are more vulnerable to employer exploitation.
Q. I saw that you recently announced a tourist school in Rhodes.
- Actually, it is for tour guides. But aside from the part-time schools, there is a need for a more comprehensive shift in the way we think about tourism education.
Q. Perhaps one of the problems, in terms of quality tourism, is that even though we are talking about 365 days a year, finally, the weight falls on the peak months, June (or May) to September. How will your ministry promote the goal of 365 days a year tourism?
A. This goal is a visionary one. We will always be here to try to do it, as other countries do. If you ask my Spanish counterpart, he will tell you the same thing, and it is not accidental. You are guided to much more sustainable tourism, reduced pressure on infrastructure (electricity, water, waste etc.), so this is a necessary goal.
There are two or three things we need to say. Our country is very focused on one product, ‘sun and sea’. But each part of Greece has a very blurred focus and thinks it can do everything. This is the first mistake we make. Regions, municipalities and regions need to focus on the type of tourism they want and go after it until it is developed to the point that it works by itself, then follow that by focusing on other less immediate forms of tourism. This way our country will have many products in total, but each region will be focused on the two or three that are most critical and important for a successful tourism product there.
The second is that we should think of 365-day tourism not as an immediate opportunity, but as a possibility for gradually extending the tourist season, especially in areas where it is considered to be summer. For instance, if one area has six months of season, try to get 15 days before and 15 days after that and extend it to 7 months. But not to set a goal one month and one after that and fail, forcing him to give up next year. We should try to do it little by little and as people learn that we are opening in May and not early June, we should fight to get it even earlier, for example early May.
The third is that the development of an area during a time in which it is not normally open involves a risk, like any business, and for some time it will have more costs, perhaps losses, until it gets ahead. The right thing to do is for these losses to be shared with all the stakeholders in tourism. And the airport – which can’t charge fees the same way – and airlines that have to operate some planes while not sure that they’ll fill up, and hoteliers who have to leave their hotels open…
Q. And to the state with incentives?
A. Not so much with incentives… In the municipality, for example, even the state could help by organizing festivals and other activities to attract people, not so much in incentives but in marketing. For us to come and advertise as EOT that Crete, Corfu or the Peloponnese are open during that period of time…
Q. Suppose that in the many meetings you have – I see you every week visiting and meeting with different regional and municipal heads – are you raising this issue? What practical measures are you discussing?
A. Indeed, with the regional governors we are mainly discussing how to activate a regional tourism council in order to put the agenda on a permanent basis. Not only with one visit, one press conference and one display of fireworks, but to establish it in constant communication, every two months at the Ministry of Tourism, so that we can activate and coordinate actions for each region.
Starting this important institution, I believe that we will be able to remove some of the misconceptions, some wasteful advertising and generally some unnecessary overlays.
Q. Despite the global economic downturn, Brexit, the recovery of competing countries, Thomas Cook et al, the numbers are again showing a positive sign that we will have an increase in both visitors and revenue this year.
- This wasn’t discernable at the beginning of the year. It is a complex phenomenon and we cannot attribute it to one factor. We also made mistakes, such as the fact that the EOT started its campaign very late this year, and we paid for it in the first few months. But there is also a change in habits. People are now slower to make their reservations. There is also the aspect of the warm winter in Europe, which it makes people feel that it isn’t necessary to rush to make reservations for their vacations. That is, there are several factors that contributed to the outcome. What is pleasing to me is not that we have an increase in tourists, but that we have an increase in the quality of tourists, and that is the most important thing.
Q. America surpassed its goal of one million visitors last year – if I am not mistaken, 1.069,000….
A. … and this year we are going to be overwhelmed by the 1.2 million visitors and that is why we firmly believe that it is time to re-think a year-round airline connection between Greece and the US…
Q. Of course there is Emirates…
A.Yes, but it has its problems because it comes in late and it is not easy to connect to other flights. There is an increase in traffic through European airports to the US, and some airlines could capitalize on it and even expand it, by flying from Athens to the Middle East. Stopping in Athens and continuing to the Middle East could increase its passenger flow.
Q. Are there any such contacts?
A. There are contacts. I had the opportunity to raise the issue again with the US Secretary of Commerce. I had raised it with him in Athens and now I had the opportunity to give him a study that supports this proposal, and at my first opportunity will see to looking for contacts in New York – where I will be in early December for the Capital Link conference – and is the city in which decisions are made by the airline companies.
Q. The US Diaspora has supported Greece in the field of tourism.
A. The Diaspora is always a source of wealth for our country and a source of endless love that must not be betrayed.
*** Translated by Vicki James Yiannias