GIG: What are your key objectives at the ministry? What is the biggest change you would like to see in the sector?
Theoharis: Tourism constitutes the key industry of Greece with a significant contribution to the GDP (20.6% according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)) and the employment rate of the country (25.9% according to the WTTC). Our mission, since our first day at the ministry, has been the implementation of the new National Strategic Plan (NSP) over the next decade, aiming, among other [targets], at sustainable tourism development, extension of the tourism season, improvement of our competitiveness, and enrichment of our tourism product.
From our point of view, tourism refers not only to numbers or statistical data, but it concerns mostly the travellers, the local community, and creating an authentic experience.
The set priorities of the NSP that will address the main challenges of the sector are:
- The improvement of competitiveness, the quality of services provided, and the resilience, authenticity, and sustainability of the tourism product.
- The upgrading of tourism establishments by offering a high quality of services and a low ecological footprint.
In order to do so, we have outlined the following Strategic Pillars:
- 1. High-standard infrastructure creation, licensing framework improvement to eliminate red tape, and tourism spatial planning;
- 2. Improvement of accessibility and connectivity with more air links and direct flights as well as the expansion and upgrading of the network of marinas;
- 3. Tourism experience optimisation towards quality and attractiveness by enhancing, inter alia, destination management and tourism education;
- 4. Tourism product redesign and rebranding reflecting the engagement in quality, authenticity, sustainability, and value for money;
- 5. Social and environmental awareness.
In order to measure up to the constantly changing market environment, it’s essential to set our economy on a new solid basis by implementing a new policy – a coherent policy consisting of innovative and extroverted elements. It’s necessary to take into consideration all global challenges, such as climate change, the ageing population, changing lifestyles and consumer demands, the increased use of information technology and communication, and, of course, globalisation.
Our NSP will coordinate all the relevant competencies and will have a clear mission and framework upon the agreement of all stakeholders. The mission of our team is to achieve the biggest possible change in the sector: collaboration, coordination, and constant monitoring and evaluation so that a balanced, equivalent distribution of the tourism development can be achieved.
GIG: You have stated the importance of the private sector’s involvement in Greece’s future tourism strategy. What does this mean for investors – both local and foreign? Where do you see the biggest opportunities?
Theoharis: Yes, indeed. I truly believe that only through the involvement and engagement of all stakeholders in the tourism industry (public and private, foreign and local) will we be able to implement an effective and efficient strategy. Their contribution is considered an essential input to our NSP. One of our main tasks is to raise the awareness of investors of potential investment opportunities, which actually refer to various aspects of our economy: infrastructure, technology/digital, capacity building, and hotel establishments.
Our main objective, which is shared by other competent ministries as well, is to expedite the large-scale infrastructure projects that will undoubtedly improve the national transport network (i.e. ports, marinas, railways, highways, and airports). The Hellinikon project is at its final stage. Ministries, including ours, have signed the joint ministerial decisions speeding up this emblematic project, emphasising the creation of a metropolitan park as well as the urban development of the coastal area with free access for all.
We need to reassess the legal framework concerning the use of land and the spatial framework of tourism, always in full compliance with strict sustainability principles. Green investments with low ecological footprints should also be encouraged and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) should be further supported by funding programs aimed at the capacity building of their working force.
Among others, we at the ministry – as the competent authority – are aiming towards the simplification and facilitation of the licensing procedure of investments and the upgrade of tourism education and training. Capacity building will provide tourism enterprises with qualified personnel, thus improving the national tourism product and services. In this manner, we can remain competitive with a better-trained workforce, enhance the awareness of the industry and its career opportunities, and, of course, boost productivity.
Last but not least, there is potential for investment in the cruise sector. The ports’ infrastructure should be modernised, and berth allocation systems should be applied to all cruise destinations in order to have better control of cruise ships’ arrivals-departures as well as an overall better destination management.
During the last few years, a number of start-ups have become active in the tourism sector, especially in the digital information and technology fields. This is a very innovative aspect of our economy, and we would like to raise the awareness of investors with respect to smart technology investment opportunities. This is a very promising sector and there is potential for further development.
GIG: Tourism numbers are pushing the country’s infrastructure to its limits on islands such as Santorini. At the same time, these visitors represent a hard-fought market share that Greece has won. How does a country grow as a tourism destination while avoiding over-tourism?
Theoharis: We are fully aware of the problematic situation in Santorini, which as a major tourism destination has been suffering from over-tourism during recent years. Day-trippers from Crete and incoming cruises add to the large numbers of international tourists flooding the island during the peak season and, thus, put significant pressure on transport infrastructure as well as on the everyday life of the local community.
To tackle this phenomenon, the Municipal Port Fund of Thira introduced the Berth Allocation System in 2018 to control and better organise cruise-ship arrivals and departures. The goal is to regulate the flow of visitors on the island during the day and also to disperse visitors to the whole of the island, suggesting less well-known locations compared with the overcrowded Oia and Fira. The Berth Allocation System allows the municipality of Thira to organise the circulation of cruise ships for a period of two years, and it is deemed crucial to keep flows in accordance with the island’s capacity. A daily limit of 8,000 people has been set for cruise passengers.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Tourism has been cooperating with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to roll out a programme to organise destination management in Santorini and Rhodes. The initiative is EU-funded and supported by the Chambers of Commerce of the Dodecanese and Cyclades. The programme is broadened by the development of a destination management guide for the preparation of similar plans in other destinations throughout Greece. The plans highlight the benefits and the challenges of tourism development and provide a long-term strategy for each of the island destinations, identifying the necessary initiatives to enhance tourism on sustainable terms while defining the roles of different stakeholders.
In addition, a training guide will lay the foundations for extending relevant practices in the country. The aim is to ensure that the destinations are developed, managed, and promoted successfully and in a sustainable, long-term, and integrated way, with a clear focus on the needs not only of tourists but also of businesses and residents.
Certainly, there are more initiatives that we are ready to unfold in due time. We do believe that the Destination Management Guide will be a very helpful tool to tackle the phenomenon of over-tourism and will lead to sustainable and balanced tourism development.
GIG: What will the ministry do to help Greece become a year-round destination?
Theoharis: We have taken the first step with the recent legislation on thematic and special forms of tourism. Specifically, the provisions of the Law 4582/2018 refer to the following thematic fields:
- Rural tourism, which includes agritourism (agricultural tourism), wine tourism, ecotourism (green tourism), trekking, geotourism, and fishing tourism;
- Sports tourism, which is divided in the organisation of sports events and in leisure outdoor sports activities (cycling, climbing, rafting, caving, paragliding, etc.);
- Air tourism;
- Sea tourism, which includes cruises, yachting, diving, and water and beach activities;
- Cultural tourism (including city breaks, cultural events and festivals, thematic tours, wedding tourism, youth tourism, etc.);
- Gastronomy tourism;
- Religious or pilgrimage tourism;
- MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions, and events) tourism;
- Health tourism, which is divided into medical tourism and spa and wellness (and thermal tourism).
With the promotion of these special forms of tourism and lesser-known destinations, we will achieve the [targeted] allocation of travellers throughout the year. The local and regional administrations can play a crucial role in the promotion and development of the special, regional forms of tourism. This is the reason why we are in the process of establishing the Regional Tourism Councils (RTCs).
The RTCs will facilitate communication between the central administration and the regions, disseminate best practices, develop a common and coordinated action plan, and improve the promotion of every region. The extension of the tourism season constitutes a key priority of our strategy, and it can only be accomplished through a solid and constant coordination of all stakeholders involved at a national, regional, and local level.
GIG: Which countries are Greece’s strongest markets? The weakest markets? In terms of promoting Greece’s tourism offer, what are your priority markets?
Theoharis: The opening of new markets is one of the strategic objectives of the Ministry of Tourism. The efforts for the penetration of Greece in the international tourism market are supported through innovative high-communication and market-diffusion activities. Our priorities, aligned with our tourism policy, include penetration in the rising markets of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China, India, Korea, and South Korea.
Regarding ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ markets, the bulk of the incoming tourist flows – about 40% of the total – comes from five EU-28 countries. Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy are the top three travel-generating markets for Greek tourism, followed by the U.S., France, and Romania.
Regarding countries of origin that have the highest relative weight on Greek tourism performance, especially outside Europe, Australia, the U.S., and Canada show higher spending and longer stays but a relatively small number of arrivals. The British, French, and Swiss spend relatively higher amounts per night than the Germans but stay for fewer days, with the British and Germans reporting the highest number of arrivals.
The long-term trend of the Greek tourist product is constantly on the rise and, despite the steep rise over the last seven years, the scope for further development has not been exploited as much as it should have been.
GIG: Competition from neighbouring markets such as Turkey and Egypt is growing. How concerned are you about this?
Theoharis: Indeed, the political uncertainty and the geopolitical problems in our neighbouring, competing countries have offered Greece the chance to seize every opportunity and have led us to hit record highs in tourism.
Notably, the upward trend of tourist arrivals in Turkey, one of Greece’s major competitors, poses a significant threat to Greek tourism. The monetary crisis of summer 2018 attributed to the sharp devaluation of the Turkish lira against other major currencies and has played a decisive role in the significant rebound in Turkey’s tourism. This highlighted our neighbouring country’s competitive advantage: Turkey has become a comparatively cheap destination, especially for travellers from the European Union who traditionally occupy a significant share in the tourist arrivals of regional countries.
In addition, trends in the compression of the Greek tourism market share may be caused by the rise of tourism in other competing countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. In these two countries, the surge in tourism occurs partly due to the security improvement as well as the adoption and implementation of policies that facilitate travel.
The tourist boom in Greece over the past seven years has ‘healed’ the wounds of the memorandums for business people and workers and has attracted significant investments from top international hotel brands. In 2019, Greece showed its ability to maintain strengths due to the high number of foreign arrivals and the rise of domestic tourism, striving to hold an excellent ranking – it is one step closer to its targeted entry into the top 10 world destinations.