Greece’s tourism sectors thrives, drawing investment and boosting the economy
While the small coastal town of Sitia on Crete holds some of the islands most stunning beaches, it remains one its less tourist-driven locations. Copyright: Giannis Giannelos


  • Tourism Stats Icon 1

    Number of tourists that visited Greece in 2018

  • Tourism Stats Icon 2
    9.7 %

    Rise in tourism numbers in 2018

  • Tourism Stats Icon 3
    21.6 bn

    in 2018, up 13.3%: tourism’s annual contribution to the Greek economy

  • Tourism Stats Icon 4
    2.2 bn

    up 46% y-o-y: amount invested in new hotels, room construction and refurbishments in 2018

Just about single-handedly, tourism hauled Greece out of its deep economic hole. Drawing over 33 million people to the country, the sun and sea are proving to be powerful forces in the economy. The outlook remains strong as tourism players prepare for the next growth phase by upping investments and reinventing themselves. As a result, the quality of hospitality services in Greece has climbed several notches, helping better position the sector in a very fickle and competitive environment.
Greece Tourism Opener secondary image
© Copyright by Kent Weakley /

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The Sun Shines on Tourism

Investments from large players aim to extend sector’s six-year upward trend.

In March 2019, a two-minute video promoting Greece was aired on YouTube and social media. Named Oh My Greece! | Unlock the feeling, it followed the journey of a visitor as he relived his holidays through memories brought on by a catchy song.

We followed him as he explored a gorge in Crete, read under the Acropolis, kicked a ball around a village square, and joyously dunked his bread in olive oil. Within days, the video went viral – clocking up 3 million views and 27,000 shares in a completely organic manner and receiving 11,000 Facebook comments, many accompanied by Greek flags and hearts.

A product of Marketing Greece, a privately funded destination promotion organisation, the success of the campaign emphasises the insatiable appetite for Greek holidays among international travellers.

No one who follows Greek tourism will be surprised. In 2018, Greece welcomed 33.1 million visitors, a sixth successive year of record visitor numbers and a 9.7% rise on the previous year. By comparison, the international average growth in visitor arrivals during the same period (2018), as recorded by the World Tourism Organization, was 6%.

In economic terms, it means that Greek tourism contributed €21.6 billion in revenue in 2018 (up 13.3.% on 2017), directly accounting for 11.7% of the country’s GDP – or up to 30.9% as an indirect contribution – according to the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE). Moreover, since most of this expenditure originated from abroad, it can predominantly be considered an export industry. And in 2019, according to preliminary Bank of Greece data spanning from January to November, revenues posted a 13% increase over the same period in 2018.

Greek Islands
Greek Islands. Copyright Kite_rin /

To put matters into context, since 2012 – and the dark days of the economic crisis – Greece’s international arrivals have risen by a striking 75%, and tourism revenue is up by 41%.

Top 30 Coutries for Travel

Of course, numbers tell only half of the story, something the current Minister of Tourism, Harry Theoharis, is keen to stress. “From our point of view, tourism refers not only to numbers or statistical data but concerns mostly the travellers, the local community, and the authentic experience,” he answered when asked about the key priorities of his ministry.

He stressed the need to focus on improving the competitiveness and sustainability of the tourism product as well as to prioritise a high quality of services matched by a low ecological footprint.

He added that the emergence of new markets was another strategic objective, especially with 40% of visitor numbers coming from five EU-28 countries. Indeed, data shows that the number of visitors from China has almost tripled in recent years, with positive momentum also seen in markets such as the U.S., India, and Israel.

Thematic tourism is also being leveraged to make inroads into the global market. Getting married on a Greek island like Santorini has become a dream for many young couples in India and China, while Greece’s private healthcare sector – characterised by high-value, low-cost services – is drawing a growing number of visitors mostly from European countries.

Meanwhile, catering options in hotels and restaurants are becoming more aligned with demand, with a growing number of options in the way of kosher and vegan dishes.

Award Winning

With tourism assuming such a pivotal role in the economic development of Greece, the government has increasingly propelled the sector into the global limelight, not only with a view to boost revenues, but also in a bid to boost the international image of the country.

It was notable that the Greek National Tourism Organization’s most recent promotional video, Greece: A 365-Day Destination (telling the story of the country’s natural, historical, and cultural highlights through all four seasons), won a string of international prizes from 2017-2018, including the World Tourism Organization’s top video for a European tourism destination.

In line with trends seen across Europe, Greece has been benefiting from better flight connectivity with the global market. Airlines such as Emirates and Delta have bumped up the number of flights entering the country, bringing in more tourists.

Inevitably, international and domestic investment has followed. You only need to look at the major players to know whether the trend will continue. Fraport Greece has made a 40-year concession to manage and operate 14 regional airports and coupled this with a pledge to invest €330 million by 2021. And Greece’s flag carrier airline Aegean Airlines added seven new destinations and 700,000 seats in 2019.

Everywhere you turn, hotel construction is underway. The Sani-Ikos group alone has invested €215 million since 2015 in its luxury resorts, expanding beyond Halkidiki into Corfu in 2018 and, from May 2019, onto the island of Kos with a third Ikos resort.

Meteora. Copyright Celestyal Cruises

It’s an expansion rate that Andreas Andreadis, CEO of Sani-Ikos Group, fully intends to maintain. “Greece remains our key priority, as there are still significant development opportunities, both in terms of business and human resources,” he notes. “Our investment in Kos has reached €100 million, but we’re also discussing units in other regions of Greece. We are looking at business plans for Crete, and probably Rhodes or Corfu.”

He stresses, however, that investment goes beyond finances. Just as important, he notes, are new ideas.

“Sani Resort was an incubator for a new concept: the luxury all-inclusive,” he says. “Before that, the image of all-inclusives was – not only in Greece but across the Mediterranean – of guests staying within the hotel, quantity over quality, and limited benefits. We wanted to redefine the all-inclusive in terms of ‘eclectic luxury’, something we call Infinite Lifestyle. The market was mature and there was the opportunity to offer a higher level of all-inclusive 5-star luxury that didn’t exist in any resort in Southern Europe.”

Travel Receipts based on country of origin infographic

Becoming a Local

Andreadis could have added another parameter: the need for tourists to truly bond with the destination they are visiting. It is a trend that has forced other long-established players to reassess their profile and, occasionally, reinvent themselves.

One such example is the Amada Colossos Resort, a stalwart of Rhodian tourism over the past 40 years under various guises (from 2004-2016 it was known as the Louis Colossos Beach Hotel). Following a colossal €50 million reconstruction launched in 2017, the Amada is now fully operational and welcoming guests to its vision of “luxury ultra-inclusive” holidays.

Once again, the premise is that that 5-star luxury – a 140m-long swimming pool, 3 pool bars, and a dizzying array of entertainment and refreshment options – will take the hotel only so far in its quest to fill 700 rooms.

“It is imperative, not only for our guests but also for our staff, that we have an identity and that that identity is drawn firstly from Rhodes and specifically from Kallithea, where we’re located,” says Aris Soulounias, Managing Director of Colossos S.A.

Copyright: Zick Svift /

“There’s an energy to Kallithea linked to the thermal springs that brought visitors here in antiquity. And equally important are our Greek heritage and famed hospitality, and even the Aegean Sea right in front of our hotel. We've passed these characteristics into the guest experience – into the architecture, the welcome, the generosity, even our food. As well as experiencing premium quality, guests need to feel like they belong.”

In hotel terms, the race to meet capacity is on. Greek government officials announced recently that half of all funding under Greece’s 2016 development law had been channelled into tourism ventures, with more than 400 investment plans submitted for approval.

Overall, the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels estimates that new construction coupled with the refurbishment of existing hotels and rooms reached up to €2.26 billion in 2018 (up 46% year-on-year), with the total investment in tourism reaching €5 billion. This was in great part due to the fact that many projects that had been frozen since 2012 were finally able to push ahead.

In fact, some 44% of all hotel and room beds in Greece are now classified as either 4 or 5 stars.

Risks Linger

“Everyone wants to attract high-income tourists. The keyword to succeed is quality,” says George Vernicos, President of Vernicos Yachts and General Secretary of SETE.

The main risk for Greek tourism is the level of economic confidence displayed by the country’s visitors, adds Vernicos. “If European citizens are optimistic, Greece is a high priority destination for them.”

Consumer confidence among travellers is doubly important. Behind the healthy revenue figures lies the fact that average per capita tourism receipts remained virtually flat in 2018 at €520. In 2012, this figure was €746.

Added to this, arrivals from Greece’s second-biggest market, the UK, are marginally down (compared to an 18% rise for the biggest market, Germany), a trend that is unlikely to be reversed until Brexit is settled.

Lower holiday spending is an international trend that is hard to combat. But it is the reason SETE has long lobbied for lower taxation in tourism-related activities – to be on a par with Greece’s main competitor markets – along with better regulation on matters such as spatial planning.

But things are moving in the right direction. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Travel & Tourism World Competitiveness Report, Greece ranks 24th on a table of 140 – up six places since 2015.

Greek luxury restaurant
Greek luxury restaurant. Copyright GagliardiPhotography /

“Greece is a mature tourism market and the strategic goals for the sector need to be designed around this,” says President of SETE Yiannis Retsos. “The future performance of Greek tourism will be determined by effective destination management and additional investments in public and private infrastructure.”

“If you ask me what our priorities should be for 2019, I would say synergies and partnerships. Pursuing records is not an end in itself for tourism professionals. It is about developing capacity-directed destinations and securing quality of life – firstly for locals and by extension for tourists. Happy locals equal happy tourists,” he adds.

And it is about presenting the right image, which is where Marketing Greece and its Oh My Greece! campaign come in. Set up by SETE and the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels in 2012, Marketing Greece generates campaigns and content on its consumer platform,

“We’ve moved beyond a simple experience-led form of destination marketing to something more sophisticated,” says Marketing Greece CEO Ioanna Dretta.

“Modern travel is about experiencing a mix of products and putting the human element first. International trends underline that the human element is the main component of authenticity, and this is something in which Greece can very naturally take the lead. Compared to our competition, we score higher at every level in this regard.”

This explains the trend of ‘localhood’, the interaction around common experiences between visitors and locals. This premise of guests becoming, in effect, a temporary local is behind the explosion of local-led experience providers. One such example is Epiculiar, a tour agency that creates bespoke experiences through the prism of food and culture in the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki.

“The modern visitor loves to have plenty of information about what the city has to offer, but to make the most out of their short stay creates the need for some local assistance,” says Thanasis Makris, Executive Consultant of Epiculiar.

Formerly a senior executive in banking institutions in Greece and abroad, Makris is part of an ever-commoner phenomenon: new blood in Greek tourism.

“Innovation and high-quality services always attract customers, no matter in which industry you operate,” he says. “The cornerstone of this company is fun! By maintaining fun as the basic ingredient of our services, our turnover is doubling from year to year,” he says.

By the looks of things, he is in good company.

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