GIG: Greece recently reopened its doors to travellers; a crucial step towards the reactivation of the Greek economy and a tremendous challenge due to the need to promote Greece as a safe and appealing destination while mitigating the risks of a new outbreak. What is the strategy for this year’s tourism season and what steps are being taken to support the sector’s comeback?
Theoharis: The Ministry of Tourism has set up a strategy that adapts to new trends in tourism. Innovation and creativity are main pillars of our tourism policy to ensure Greece maintains its leading role as an attractive tourism destination. Our primary goal for this year is to attract all markets and mitigate seasonality, while focusing on the development of alternative forms of thematic tourism focused on areas such as Greek gastronomy, diving, health and wellness, or mountain climbing. These forms of tourism engulf untapped opportunities and have great potential. Start-ups also have a central position in the future of Greek tourism. Around 10% of all start-ups in Greece are in the travel and tourism industry including hotel booking, cultural activities, and yachting.
Greek tourism is a driver of growth and development and we will spend utmost efforts to advance its recovery in 2021, and build a more sustainable future for the sector. Greece’s tourism opening this year lies on three pillars: namely a new campaign by the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO); implementation of health protocols in tourism businesses; and travel protocols. Through our new campaign “All You Want Is Greece,” we aim to create a lasting expectation, highlight the uniqueness of Greece, and enhance a universal desire for travel. What’s equally important is that our campaign aims to enhance brand awareness and sales dynamics for industry professionals. Cooperation with tour operators and airlines is among our priorities.
Our visitors can travel throughout Greece under conditions of absolute health security. We have carefully planned and are constantly updating the health protocols that apply to the tourism sector. Greece is a pioneer when it comes to protecting its foreign visitors, Greek citizens, and all those who work in tourism.
For example, our priority is to vaccinate industry employees to build a security shield that will guarantee safety for all in our country.
Last year we managed, under much more difficult circumstances, to open up the country and keep the necessary balance. I can say with certainty that this year will be better than 2020 as we have more tools and data at our disposal, including our vaccination program.
GIG: The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the vulnerability of Greece’s tourism industry and the need to diversify its economic model. How does the tourism industry fit within the country’s economic recovery plan? What does this mean for investors – both local and foreign? Where do you see the biggest opportunities?
Theoharis: Any major crisis can turn into a big opportunity. Our 10-year strategic plan for Greek tourism was launched amid a particularly difficult year, in terms of challenges and competition, while being in line with the priorities of the European Recovery and Resilience Facility. This provides new financial tools that will be employed in 2021 and the years to come. In fact, our strategic plan for tourism fits within the country’s economic recovery plan as it supports the advancement of the green economy and the digital transition while, setting goals for when the pandemic ends.
We have also pointed out the importance of establishing Destination Management & Promotion Organizations (DMMOs) to further upgrade Greece’s tourism product, through long-term cooperation between the private and public sectors. This kind of cooperation will be supported by suitable incentives at geographical and thematic levels to promote tourism products and ensure the quality of services offered. DMMOs are considered key in changing Greece’s tourism model and finding solutions to issues such as over tourism in certain destinations. These aspects are included in a new bill drafted by the Ministry of Tourism with the aim of resolving a number of sectorial issues of economic, social, developmental, and environmental importance.
Greece has set the goal of establishing a national observatory for sustainable tourism development taking into consideration the contribution of data intelligence, science-based approaches, and assessment mechanisms, to an evidence-based policy making procedure. The observatory’s mission is to highlight the comparative advantages of tourism destinations, enhance the positive economic results of tourism to the national GDP, while respecting the rich natural and cultural heritage of destinations, and contributing to the development of local communities in accordance with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations and the World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) ongoing Measuring Sustainable Tourism Initiative. While being linked to regional and local observatories, the national observatory will serve as a stakeholder platform and will drive effective policy planning as well as create early warning systems for tourism, based on risk assessments of destinations and the industry.
It should be noted that our strategic planning has been presented in meetings of the UNWTO Global Tourism Crisis Committee, where Greece participates as Chair of the UNWTO Committee for Europe with the aim of uniting the tourism sector in formulating a sector-wide response to the unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
With all this in mind, the biggest opportunities for local and foreign investors lie across a number of sub-sectors of the Greek tourism market, with the prevailing ones being the upgrading and construction of new hotels with respect to sustainable development principles, the promotion of special forms of tourism, and the construction of marinas and theme parks.
More than 40 new hotels, primarily boutique hotels, already opened their doors during the past year in the centre of Athens, either through leasing contracts or full acquisitions. This underlines the dynamism of the tourism market and how investments can transform the city around Omonia square, Plaka and Syntagma square.
Investments in marinas throughout Greece is another area with great potential to enhance tourism and increase the number of yachts visiting our country. A 40-year concession agreement for the development and use of the Alimos Marina was signed last year, aiming to create a centre for tourism composed of green zones, hotel facilities, and outdoor events.
We have announced the construction of a new marina in Sithonia, Halkidiki, Northern Greece, to enhance the number of visitors arriving primarily from the Balkans and Russia. Investment opportunities in the development of marinas throughout Greece remain high, and I invite property investors to come and invest in the development of marinas that customarily lie at the heart of many waterfront Greek cities.
GIG: Greece has been a leading proponent of the adoption of a “vaccine passport” to enable the resumption of international travel. What role do you see vaccine passports and digital vaccination certificates having in the future of the travel industry? Is this something that’s here to stay?
Theoharis: The safe and efficient resumption of the global tourism industry with a comprehensive, coherent, and detailed plan is a priority in the post-covid period. We need to articulate clearly defined rules to resume safe cross-border travel; promote safe travel at all points of the journey; provide liquidity to companies and protect jobs; and restore travelers’ confidence. For the resumption of safe travel, we have created a health risk management framework that includes a health protocol, test Certificates (RT-PCR, Antigen, Immunization), vaccination certificates, and mitigation measures.
Greece will allow entry to travellers that have either been vaccinated against Covid-19, have recovered from the virus, or have a negative PCR test result. In addition, random sampling will be conducted at our borders, after a visitor is selected by the EVA algorithmic system employed in Greece, for an extra check.
For tourists who have been vaccinated the quarantine obligation ceases to apply. Of course, vaccination must be proved with a certificate issued by the competent authorities of each country of origin. This certificate must contain all relevant information in English. The date of each dose’s vaccination must be verifiable, along with the possibility of data identification with the traveller’s passport.
Vaccination certificates are of utmost importance. Initially proposed by the Greek prime minister, a common vaccination certificate to facilitate travel in the post-COVID-19 era seems to be supported by EU member states. They would ensure the quickest possible re-establishment of freedom of movement between Member-States, as well as with third countries.
We thus welcome the European Commission’s legislative proposal to establish a common framework for a Digital Green Certificate. This is as major step in support of the recovery of the tourism sector, and a secure tool that fully respects data protection, ensuring that EU citizens can travel safely and with minimum restrictions this summer. This is an opportunity for the EU to influence global standards and lead by example.
One point that needs to be crystal clear is that the Digital Green Certificate system is a temporary measure. It will be suspended once the World Health Organization declares the end of the COVID-19 international health emergency.
GIG: Following Greece’s bilateral agreement with Israel for the development of a travel corridor, should we expect any additional agreements with third countries? If so, which ones? What needs to happen for restrictions on non-essential travel from non-EU countries (like the U.S. and China) to be curbed?
Theoharis: Greece opened its doors safely from April onwards, implementing a pilot program for Serbia, the EU, the U.S., UK, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, in the first phase.
These countries were selected in this stage because they deploy valuable tools for the safety of tourist travel, which include: Rapid tests, molecular tests (PCR), along with the large vaccination campaign across the EU, the epidemiological map that the ECDC constantly updates, and the European Commission’s guidelines for the movement of tourists to and from third countries.
The development of a travel corridor has been possible because of the Greek prime minister’s initiative to propose the adoption of a common European vaccination certificate to facilitate the freedom of movement of those citizens who have been vaccinated on all means of transport: air, sea, and rail.
For restrictions on travel from non-EU countries to be curbed, we must ensure alignment of national safety protocols with existing International processes, like for example, the International Standardization Organization (ISO) PAS 5643. The harmonization of safety protocols will enhance travellers’ confidence, improve experiences, as well as contribute to the continuity and consistency in business operations.
In addition, the digitalization of the whole safety process will help build a network of trust through which we can exchange valid information at all points of the journey. Through digitalization, we can ensure enforcement and implementation of safety protocols through inspection, auditing, and verification processes, in accordance with transparent technical criteria to ensure compliance.
Last year we tried to respond defensively to the extraordinary, unknown conditions of the global health crisis. This year we have taken dynamic initiatives. The clearer the measures we take, the sooner we will minimize uncertainty. A sense of security is essential for someone to decide to travel far from their country.