GIG: Greece’s leaders are currently shifting their mindset from how to avert the novel coronavirus to strategies to prepare the country for the future. Today we’re speaking with the country’s Tourism Minister, Harry Theoharis, to discuss the keys to reopening a sector that has been a mainstay of Greece’s economy. Thank you very much, Minister, for joining us today.
GIG: With tourism contributing an estimated 20% to Greek GDP, according to the WTTC, and generating one in four jobs, I believe the million dollar question, Minister, is when can we expect Greece’s tourism industry to get back into business?
Theoharis: Well, that depends on a lot of factors which are not under, you know, one single country’s control, certainly not under our control. But what
we are doing is we are ensuring that the framework is in place and that means the health protocols and whatever is required in order to ensure that we have safe vacationing – safe travels.
The economic framework is in place for the enterprises to be there and operational. And of course, the diplomatic and the relationship with other countries framework is in place to allow free travel, which currently is impeded due to understandable restrictions.
GIG: And what is the strategy that you’re trying to push ahead to reopen Greece’s tourism sector?
Theoharis: Well, the first pillar of the strategy is to ensure that people understand and this is also reflected in actual reality, that this is one of the safest countries in the world and it will continue being safe even after we lift initially the internal restrictions and gradually the external touristic restrictions. So we will not sacrifice that. We need to ensure that everybody understands that. The second pillar is, of course, to get ready, to be ready to accept tourists with all the internal preparations that are necessary. The third pillar is the international cooperation, both at a WTO level and at a European level – in terms of the EU – which will greatly expedite the processes of ensuring that all countries are adept, both to receive and to send tourists abroad. And the final pillar is the targeted promotional and other activities that we’ll enhance as soon as we are ready to receive people and enhance the touristic flows towards our country.
GIG: You mentioned safety Minister, and on that note Greece’s successful management of the coronavirus pandemic has gained it international praise. French think tank, The Bridge, recently ranked Greece Europe’s best performer in this respect. How do you believe this international boon to the country’s image can contribute to the recovery of Greece’s tourism industry?
Theoharis: This is very important. Ultimately, this is not just about the tourism sector. It’s about the whole of the economy and about Greece in general. So, it is certainly one of the things that we will depend on in the next few years to accelerate this recovery. So, in a sense, it’s important for this year, but it’s much more important for the years to come because
Greece has reintroduced itself, as it were, to the world with a totally different image: an image of respectability, an image of effectiveness, an image – if you like – of respect for both citizen’s rights and the most basic right, the right to their health, and is extending that to visitors as well, not just our citizens.
GIG: I’d like to move on now to talk about the financial impact of the tourism industry. In 2019, the tourism industry generated revenues surpassing €18 billion. What are your expectations for the sector this year?
Theoharis: Well, this is a million dollar question in reality. We have a range of scenarios. And as always, those kinds of ranges can be pretty wide, especially in unprecedented times like these. And especially since this is not dependent just on economic terms, which economists have the toolsets to sort of forecast with much greater accuracy and precision. But it depends a lot on diplomatic channels, on the willingness and the ability of two or more countries to come to the discussion table and then finally agree. You can imagine that there’s a lot of uncertainty. So, I don’t want to delve deep into actual numbers. But what I can say is that this year cannot be judged with the standards of the previous years. We had a year that started as being a phenomenal success. In the first 2 months we had a 24% increase in terms of receipts and in terms of the number of visitors. So, this was a huge year in the making. Unfortunately, the whole world changed rapidly and in a radical way. Of course, Greece will deal with that like every country does. But if anything, and within a much more smaller pie, we aim to increase our presence and increase our ability to stand financially in this very competitive market that tourism is.
GIG: And how do you believe, Minister, that Greece can reshape its tourism offer to bridge this financial gap?
Theoharis: Well, there are many levels that we have to work on. Of course, we have to work on the digital aspect, on the contactless aspect, and that includes both the country and the specific enterprises.
We have to project this feeling of security because Greece is a safe country and this has to be projected to each and every person that is thinking about coming to Greece and is actually coming to Greece, because if you like, for this year, this decision is actually a privilege. It’s a vote of confidence. it’s a very important one. We did not take it lightly.
So, we’d like to extend this kind of respect for our country to a reciprocal respect for our guests. And the third pillar, the important thing is to look at the more long term changes and try to anticipate them in terms of the behaviour of people. This was a traumatic experience for the whole world. And this will affect – long term – people’s choices. We have to see what that means for the changes in our industry going forward.
GIG: You’re talking about changes, Minister, and there is a lot of talk about what the future is going to look like, and the overriding changes this pandemic is going to bring about across sectors, but particularly in the travel industry. Things ranging from digital health passports to contactless travel. What changes do you foresee Minister in the travel industry?
Theoharis: Yes. Well, this is going to be a very, very important question in the months going forward. And the changes that we will see initially are going to be perhaps a bit on the more cautious side. Both because this is required – we’re gradually opening from a cautious stance to a more free, if you like, stance – and also, we are in the period where there is no health solution. There is no vaccine or other means of treating the disease in such a way that people are not afraid of it, like with other treatable diseases. So we have to, first of all, see if this changes – I already mentioned that technology can help us. And also, the essence of what we’re trying to do now is how to salvage the feeling, the core of the touristic experience, which must not be hidden behind a veil of hospitalisation of the experience, if that’s a term that can be applied. So, we want to ensure that even behind the mask a welcoming smile can still shine through.
Long term, we will see, I feel, a more specific turn towards the authenticity of the experience. If you like, the strategic turns we were already foreseeing in our plans, If anything, will be accelerated.
So more green experiences, more authentic experiences, more secure.
GIG: And on that note Minister, how can we strike a balance between safety and travel experiences?
Theoharis: Well, that is very, very important. And actually, as we speak, we’re finalising our hygienic protocols, which, as you can imagine, is exactly about this kind of balance. What do we need to ensure this kind of safety? How do we ensure that there’s economic viability? The health of the enterprises is also taken into account. And how do we ensure that this is not an unpleasant experience? These three points of the triangle, there’s a tension between them, as you can imagine. But we will, we are determined to strike this balance. But let me also add this. This is going to be trial and error. It’s unprecedented. Nobody knows. There’s no country that has a blueprint. So we will try. We will err on the side of caution. But we will be ready to rethink the decisions as quickly as our doctors say that it’s safe to do so.
GIG: Now I’d like to steer the conversation towards the European Union, particularly bearing in mind that according to the Bank of Greece, 42% of Greece’s travel receipts are derived from the euro with Germany, France and Italy topping the ranks. With ideals like solidarity currently at the centre of the debate on European recovery efforts, what measures would you like to see targeting the block’s tourism industry?
Theoharis: Well, Europe, and when we talk about Europe we talk about the EU, has a clear role to play – the Commission. We need a lot more coordination. We need to cool the natural tendencies of the countries to sort of close-in on their borders and think about their own world and their own priorities, which are very, very important, of course. Every country has to deal with that. But also, at the same time, sometimes they contradict, especially in times of crisis, with the good health of the region, as a whole.
Europe is the most touristically developed region in the world. It’s the most visited region in the world. So tourism is important not just from the perspective of the southern countries that have the advantages and the big touristic flows, but from the perspective of the northern countries as well.
Actually, in absolute terms, the touristic Industry of the northern countries is very, very sizable, even if it’s smaller with respect to their own GDP. So, what we need, what we expect from Europe is to be a centre of gravity, and in order to ensure that there are common standards we project as Europe the safety image I talked before about in my own country, and that we also coordinate our decisions, our responses, and our relationships with third party countries and between ourselves, among ourselves. So, this is the kind of thing that Europe can do to accelerate the exit strategy from the current state of restriction.
GIG: The possibility of establishing safe-travel zones amongst those countries that have done particularly well in managing the coronavirus pandemic has also been widely commented. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
Theoharis: Yes, well, the idea is that, of course, this can apply either to multinational agreements or to bilateral agreements. But
the idea is that under specific protocols and under an exchange of ideas of what each country does – each country has to have their own hygiene protocols – we can gradually open up and lift the bans between regions.
Now, this can be done under a variety of test regimes or it can be done if two countries are at the same epidemiology level. Or, if you like, the cycle of dealing with the disease is similar, then this can be done, perhaps even without tests, since there is no increase in the risk between the citizens of one country and the other. So, there are ways forward that will facilitate and accelerate the opening up of the borders. This requires a lot of discussions, but we’re willing – we’ve knocked on many countries’ doors – some of them have knocked back, and some have initiated on their own this discussion and we’re ready to discuss with each and every one of them.
GIG: I’d like to touch upon what I believe most would agree has been a silver lining of the pandemic in Greece, which has been a fast tracking of the country’s digitisation efforts. In fact, in April, the Ministry of Tourism unveiled an initiative dubbed ‘Greece from Home’, which is a fantastic initiative – congratulations. What was the vision behind the establishment of Greece from home, and what is the feedback, what has the reaction been so far?
Theoharis: Yes, well, we thought really long and hard: what is the role of the Ministry of Tourism during such a crisis where everything is shut down, and everyone is home in hibernation mode? And people do not think about travel. Now many countries just went out with a simple message: ‘We’ll be here when this ends and we’re waiting for you.’ But we wanted to take it one step further.
We feel that tourism as an endeavour, as an activity, is about bridging gaps between people. It is about finding common modes of thinking. It’s about learning each other’s way of life and taking back something from that. And, if anything, this, in a sort of totally different setting, is what the pandemic has shown us, that we are on the same boat called Earth, and we have to deal sometimes with the same kind of enemies and we have to do that in a united way. So we wanted to provide resources to the world that help during this difficult time. Everybody was, in many cases, and still is in lockdown mode, forced to stay at home with nothing much to do. So we created the Greece From Home. It’s a website that people can visit and they can see interesting content, informative content, of course, with the assets of our country. That’s what we have – videos about Greece or things that are well known, Greek people think about or discuss – in order to help everyone stay creatively at home, and make this a pleasant experience, something to become from a necessity to a pleasantry. So, we feel that with this we’re doing our little thing to help humanity overcome this crisis. And the reaction was very, very positive from people ranging from Bill Gates to simple citizens that sent us emails and letters, saying how excited they were about this website, this platform.
GIG: And given the success of Greece From Home, looking towards the future, how else do you foresee technology and the Internet of Things contributing to reshape the tourism industry, not just in Greece but on a worldwide scale?
Theoharis: Well, the short term answer to that is, of course, contactless. This is going to be the mode du jour because everybody would like to stay safe by not touching other people. So this is going to be the immediate impact. The more long term impact is that people will take the decisions into their own hands, perhaps, and then perhaps they will not rely, and they have to check and double check and ensure that there are standards that adhere to their needs.
They will be more aware of their needs because they are so pressing and so acute. And as a result, they would like to sort of make their own decisions and not rely on other people’s recommendations so much. And in order to do that, we know very much that this cannot be done through old media. This has to be done through a more digital experience. So, this is going to lead to more digitalisation, of at least the initial phases of the experience and the decision making process, et cetera. The third tendency that supports this is the fact that we are now much more used to using digital means in our everyday life, from public services to banks and everything, because that was a requirement and a necessity during the lockdown. So, people will be much more familiar with using those tools and they’ll venture out into things like tourism.
GIG: And with that said Minister, is there anything else you would like to add?
Theoharis: What I would like to say is that Greece, if anything, during this difficult period has become stronger. Our health system is stronger. Our touristic product is stronger. We’re working hard to strategically strengthen it and ensure that we keep the nugget, the core, of the beauty of the experience of Greece, which is our open arms and our warm heart and the warm smile. And in order to save that in such a way that we still keep everybody safe, both our citizens and our visitors.
GIG: Thank you very much, Minister Theoharis. It’s been a pleasure. We wish you every success in your endeavors. And from our side, we do hope to enjoy the beauties of Greece this summer and, in fact, as soon as possible.