New York.- By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
Tourism was always considered Greece’s heavy industry but it was only after the economic crisis that both the government at the tourist industry people have managed to work seriously and capitalize on what the country can offer to the visitor. As a result, tourism has broken record after record.
In the U.S. market things were somehow harder, since Olympic Airways seized to flight and for years there was not a year round direct flight. One of the people, who worked behind the scenes advising Ministers of Tourism and other officials and helped opening up markets, is Peter Vlitas, Senior Vice President of Travel Leaders Group, a worldwide company. As the 10th “Let’s Go to Greece” Campaign of the “Greek News” enters its final month, we interviewed Peter Vlitas on the potential of Greek Tourism as well as its maladies.
“Yes we can increase the numbers, if there are flights going to Greece, if Greece has the service levels and they can maintain an average cost and do not out-price themselves out of the market”, is Peter Vlitas’ prediction regarding the U.S. market, which last year surpassed the one million visitors mark.
Most of the time, it was the professional who was speaking to us. But he became very emotional and his voice broke down, when he named whom he considers the real heroes for helping Greek Tourism from the United States.
“The real credit belongs to the parents who send every summer their children to Greece, and they consider it an investment. These are the real heroes…”
Q. After years of breaking records, how do you see the prospects for Greek Tourism? Did it reach the ceiling, or there is still possible to continue its rally?
Q. I think the rapid growth will stop this year, not because of Greece as a destination, but because of the geopolitical situation; although the amount of tourists from the United States will increase, surpassing last year’s.
There is great interest from the United States to travel to Greece. The country has increased tremendously the luxury brand, with all the new hotels that opened up in different parts of Greece, from Chalkidiki to Sparti, Crete and the various islands. Paros will receive more tourists this year than last and people are looking for smaller islands, such as Karpathos and Ikaria. And there are of course the deluxe properties, such as in Elounda, Mykonos and Santorini.
What is happening is that given the political situations in some countries, people are concerned. An example of that is the U.K. with the Brexit, where people are not sure if they should take the trip.
We also have a slight increase in countries that are always competing with Greece for tourism; there is a slight increase in Egypt, which is trying to come back; Turkey which is constantly trying to push into the market, but unfortunately as long as its government takes these positions they have a very difficult time, regardless the low fares of Turkish Airlines.
Greece is maturing in its tourism. More is not better; better is better and Greece is maturing with the quality of its properties and service. This year there will be the highest amount of airline seats from all over the world to transit to Greece. Greece has never had so many flights coming in from the Middle East, the United States, Europe and Asia, which will help to maintain a high level of tourism.
Q. We have I think more luxury hotels than ever before…
A. To be honest with you, we have to be careful of over-tourism; the islands are doing quite well, and so does the mainland. Evident is with the brand new “Four Seasons” (the old Astir Palace”) that opened up, a sizable investment by one of the top brands in the World. And then you have of course the rock of Athens, which is “Grand Bretagne Hotel”.
We are also excited with “Costa Navarino” and their exposure; they have some golf tournaments that gave the great exposure. Amirandes Hotel in Crete is also a fine resort doing well.
During the last month Travel Leaders” has sent a number of travel advisers from our U.K. operations to Greece, because our people want to go and see the new experiences and the new properties they are in Greece.
We are excited about opening up Northern Greece and Chalkidiki and all those new resorts up there; and we are looking forward, as airlines increase lift in Thessaloniki, to be able to offer more options.
So, depending on how you count the numbers, people flying into Greece – especially the mid to higher market will do well this year and it will continue to be strong for many – many years, as long as Greece can maintain the high levels of service.
Q. Are all the destinations easy to reach?
A. One of the problems we face today in Greece is transportation; the fact that in order to move from one island to another, many times you have to go through Athens. For someone who has 7-14 days to travel, he doesn’t want to spend a whole day traveling. I know they are looking at seaplanes, but when the meltemia come in this doesn’t work quite well. If Greece could continue improving some air-taxi service, that will further open up the markets.
I also think we are at a disadvantage here in the United States, because “Aegean Air” went to a different booking system and for travel advisers it’s is very difficult to book through its reservation system. Aegean’s seats availability is limited because it has small planes and limited flights.
Minister Kountoura, who did a very fine job and was voted World’s best Tourism Minister, was talking about Greece as 365 days a year destination. But there are islands even today that are connected with either a very early flight or a very late flight. The very early flight doesn’t help if you are inbound and the very late flight doesn’t you if you are outbound – even in the afternoon – if you have to leave for another country. Many of these flights are designed for the islanders; however, if you want tourism 365 days a year, you have to look at what is Greece’s infrastructure and how we can move people around.
Q. Given that we work in a free market economy with private airlines, how Greece could correct this?
A. First of all, Greece and whoever is running Tourism needs to tender; they need to go out and say “we want to increase transportation to the islands”. It’s very complex in Greece, because when you want to increase air transportation, you have the ship companies and the ferries. Some of them they may not like competition and they could use their influence with the government. If the government wants to do right by the country and by its people, they need to either encourage Aegean and others, or to ask companies to come in and tender. The fact that Greece gave its airports to others makes things a bit complex, so it’s not up to them to decrease landing fees. I know that Hatzimarkos, the Governor of South Aegean is working hard to put some air-taxi program.
So, if we want people to move easy from one island to another, we need to look either at air taxi service, or at which islands could serve with a reliable speed ferry service, at times that makes sense.
I have also pointed out long ago the need to fix Piraeus Port, as well as Rafina, that could be fixed as a good speed ferry port.
Over all, Greece needs a plan. If we want to be a 365 days destination, the government should offer incentives, press “Fraport” to reduce landing rights and tender out to see if there is a low cost carrier with inside Europe that wants to take over these flights. Unless you arrange flights to move people, you are constricting the movement of tourism and you won’t be able to grow.
Q. I guess the crisis has helped tourism and they did something right in Greece.
A. The crisis pushed the government to make decisions; it reduced the cost of land and the cost of doing business in Greece. Thus afforded the opportunity for Greeks in Greece – whether they had outside investors or not – to actually create developed properties.
I think the majority of the development that happened in Greece was done by Greeks themselves. I also think that tourism is gold for Greece. I also think Greece can change some of the laws. And I also believe Greece should stop changing the positions in Tourism with elected party officials, but instead they must let the professionals of the industry to run it. I recognize that the Minister of Tourism should be from the governing party; however, as Tourism is a critical part of the Greek economy, the officials below the minister should not have to be political appointees. We need to have technocrats to do it.
I have discussed it extensively with the Greek governments. As you know, I don’t support any government; I support Greece and I have worked with all the governments, right or left. You need people to know the specific markets. Once, they had wasted money to promote the beaches of Greece to the Asian markets. But these people were only interested to see the history. So, what the Asian tourist wants is not what the European tourist wants, or the American.
We have an affluent community in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. Do we have people there promoting Greece and where in Greece? So, the government should have a plan and reach out to those in the industry that have the knowledge. Here in the United States we have many philhellenes and Americans of Hellenic dissent in the travel industry; the same in Europe and South America. Greece can make a concerted effort to pull some of these professionals worldwide in a Congress, inviting these people and 30-40 of these advisors, who will pay their own way, in the Fall, when it’s quitter; and discuss what is the plan for 2020 and beyond, what conventions could have in Greece etc.
Q. We had ASTA…
A. ASTA itself came over and visited. But ASTA is made of small to mid size tour operators and there are very few large organizations there. This is a very different type of tourism. The question becomes, what kind of global events could come to Greece? Can we bring the MTV awards where there is influence and can showcase the country? There has to be a whole team that works with all these.
I give a lot of kudos to the Airport in Athens. The new arrival hall is amazing; very large and very fast. Why don’t we look at the system the U.K. has just put in? If I have a U.S. Passport, I just put it in the machine, it scans me and I enter UK literally in 2 minutes. In Athens I don’t think there are enough customs people and there are long lines. I am happy that they put a fast line for priority customers, but what percentage of the passengers is it covering?
The cruises… Greta Kamaterou did an excellent job here in the United States, organizing press trips and opening up to the non-Greek market. She quit and I don’t think she was replaced. These are the mistakes that Greece continuously makes.
There are regions in Greece that are underdeveloped but they have a rich history. Someone has to build a master plan and then GNTO and the respective offices in the regions should coordinate. Nothing can be done overnight, but we should prioritize. We must know what we can offer to each category of tourists.
Q. Do you think that the small to mid size people in the industry have the necessary professionalism, or some negative phenomena of the past are still going on?
A. You have both. First, something should happen with Airbnb, because you cannot have an apartment building and call it hotel. Greece does a poor job to manage the B and C level hotels. In the middle level, it’s kind OK, but in the smaller level it’s kind of hit or miss. There is where you need to put standards. Then you need people to handle the different tourist markets, i.e. religious tourism, eco tourism etc. Greece has an amazing culinary; do we have culinary tourism?
Greece offers different flavors and experiences. Up to know, because there was no money, everything was painted with one broad stroke. If you ask people, what image they remember from Greece, it’s the blue dome of Santorini. But Greece is more than that and an elected official who will stay in the job for 3-4 years won’t going to get it, because you need to build on that for a longer period of time. These markets take longer time to develop.
Q. U.S. visitors to Greece surpassed the one million mark and you should also take some pride, as one who helped opening up markets and direct flights.
A. First, “Greek News” should be congratulated, because you were the first of all media to begin your campaigns for Greece; others have copied you and the best flatter is when somebody copies you. You were the ones who put real numbers in your reporting and this is important, because in order to solve a problem we need to be honest.
Personally, I am a proud Greek American and I take pride when people visiting Greece are telling me how beautiful Greece is, because it’s the land of my ancestors. It’s the first time we have so many airlines flying non-stop from the United States. We also have new flights from European carriers. On July 3rd “Norwegian” is doing the inaugural launch. We have “Delta” with 2 daily flights and larger planes and like “Emirates”, they are very much entrenched in the Greek Community, supporting events and organizations.
Greece is affordable, Greece is of great value in compare with surrounding countries and I am very proud of the work me, you and other people like us have done, strictly for patriotic reasons. This was done because we needed to help Greece; it was not because we fell into one political line or another. How Greece got into that mess it is not for me to say or to judge, but it is for me how to help if I can.
In a number of presentations I made to airlines in order to convince them, we did show some of your work and your campaign. These are the untold stories. There are many people over time that will stand up and take credit for the success of Greece. But the real credit belongs to the parents who send every summer their children to Greece, and they consider it an investment. These are the real heroes, not the guy who has millions and says. I will go to Greece for the summer.
Q. Have we reached the limit with one million U.S. visitors? Or we can say, it is possible in five years to gain another half a million or so?
A. It’s not only that we have a big community, but people really want to go to Greece. There are many countries in the world that people visit once and they don’t want to go again. I want to go to India to see the Taj Mahal but I won’t go to see it again. Greece it’s not like that. I want to see Acropolis because there is nothing like that in the world, but I also want to walk the steps of the saints, to see the monasteries, to go to the beaches and have good time. In Greece when the sun goes down, there are many places to go. The food is relatively inexpensive and there is fun and life. Look at the package of everything Greece offers and the diversity of all Greece. So, to answer your question, yes we can increase the numbers, if there are flights going to Greece, if Greece has the service levels and they can maintain an average cost and do not out-price themselves out of the market.