Greece has never been sexier: The record boom in Greek tourism with more to come, says Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura
To say that Greece is in dire straits is a euphemism. The country is facing another existential crisis with the possibility of defaulting and abandoning the common European currency as close as ever. The newly-elected coalition government of the leftist SYRIZA and the right wing Independent Greeks so far hasn’t proved itself up to the task of averting disaster and putting the country back on track as they promised. Despite their popularity in poll after poll and the “patriotic” overtures of its media-savvy virtuosos, the country remains between a rock and a hard place and insecurity for the future is painfully felt in the present. Whether the government will surprise everybody, including itself at this point, and manage to turn things around, it remains to be seen. Tourism is one of the areas, perhaps the only one, where real progress has proven within reach, scoring new highs last year (more than 17 million arrivals to a country of roughly 11 million) and expecting more of the same this season. In an interview with NEO magazine (through email submitted questions) Alternate Minister of Tourism, Mrs. Elena Kountoura, appeared optimistic that Greece shall overcome and tourism will lead the way out of the current impasse.
“Tourism should and does unite all Greeks in the great undertaking to resurrect the country and the economy,” she said.
Elena Kountoura was born in Athens and this past January was appointed Alternate Minister for Tourism in the Ministry of Economy, Infrastructure, Shipping and Tourism. She was for many years a member of the Greek National Track and Field Team and has been Champion of Greece in the high jump and 100m hurdles and holder of numerous national records, as well as national and international titles and awards. She has also had a successful career in haute couture modeling, within the country and overseas.
She has been elected five times member of Parliament, most recently at the national elections of January 25, 2015, collecting the greatest number of votes for the Independent Greeks Movement ballot in Athens. Her party then became a junior partner in a coalition government with the leftist SYRIZA movement.
Since June, 2014 she is a member of the Greek Parliamentary Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and a member of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons and alternate member of the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination.
Mrs. Kountoura is very active in supporting a number of charities in Greece and abroad. She is president of the “EUROPA DONNA HELLAS,” an organization that raises awareness for the prevention of breast cancer and better health care for cancer patients. She has also been honored for her support in spreading the values of Paralympic Volunteerism in Greece. In December 2007 she was named by the Greek Government a Goodwill Ambassador for Social Volunteering.
You resumed your duties in the midst of another crisis, not that it was ever that quiet the last five years. Due to the barrage of negative publicity internationally, the country’s image has been seriously wounded and that could affect tourism. How are you dealing with all this?
With great effort and strategic planning we have elevated tourism to a national level of importance, because it is crucial to the development, the well-being, and the future of our people, above and beyond partisan politics. Tourism should and does unite all Greeks in the great undertaking to resurrect the country and the economy. Nowadays, international media talks about the return of Greece to the first line of tourist destinations internationally. There are tangible results, but also a central goal: strong and valued tourism identity and international prestige for the Brand Name “Greece”. The challenges are ahead of us. Greece and the US share common values and hopes in a spirit of unity, friendship and cooperation. And that’s how we wish to continue.
Last year Greek tourism did well, in fact better than ever if we are to take statistics literally. How are things looking for this season?
All entities that deal with tourism including our ministry and the people of Greece have come together and joined hands so that 2015 will be an even better year. The feedback so far is very positive and we feel very optimistic.
What is your strategy for the US? Will you continue promoting Greece as a luxury destination, will you go back to the more popular image, or is it going to be both?
Greece remains an attractive, secure, and hospitable tourist destination for all Americans, including Greek Americans who wish to keep the bonds with their country of origin and our language strong. We want to get as big a chunk as possible from the Americans who travel overseas for vacations. Greece is a multifaceted destination for tourists with different tastes and spending ability. Our strong card, the “Sun and Sea” concept, as well as our special categories, Cruises, Health and Well Being, Conference, Sports tourism and regular international sports events, such as the Classic Marathon of Athens, offer something for everyone. Our goal is to have high quality and modern infrastructure with equal level services all over the country. And while we promote all types of tourism, we give emphasis to establish Greece as a luxury destination. According to last year’s statistics, the market share of four and five star hotels was 40%. We invest and offer all kinds of incentive for new resorts or renovation of older ones, spas, golf courses and luxury summer homes. Greece has been distinguished for the high quality service it traditionally offers and has all the means to become and remain a top tourist destination.
[sws_blue_box box_size=”620″] There is already a flexible and modern framework that facilitates investment in Greece. This framework offers more and better opportunities to invest in tourism with new products and services while curtailing bureaucracy. [/sws_blue_box]
Due to the high cost of airline tickets, many younger people and families have come to realize that the regular summer trip to Greece is beyond their means. However, it is crucial that Greek Americans maintain a direct relationship with the land of their ancestors. Would you consider exploring ways that could make things easier, perhaps a charter airline or incentives to go there during off high season times?
Air traveling is sine qua non for tourism. We are trying to facilitate a steady policy of strengthening tourism from the US with an increase in available airline seats, new direct flights and making better use of indirect flights through Europe. We will try to have as many airlines as possible connect directly with Greece. We are also working with travel agencies to design price-friendly, off-season tourist packages for young people and retirees.
Your predecessor had announced that Qatar Airlines would fly directly from Athens to New York. It didn’t happen. However, it’s impossible to significantly increase tourism to Greece from the US unless you have a direct connection year-round, something that is not the case since Olympic stopped flying. Is it in your plans to strike a deal with an international carrier to finally start direct flights in addition to seasonal flights by Delta?
Your follow-up question shows how much Americans and Greek Americans want to visit Greece, whether for professional or recreational reasons. We are looking at all possibilities and we are carving a new strategy so that airlines will include Greece in their list of top destinations.
Greece used to be the ideal place for students and young people in general until the Euro became too expensive and the prices in the country soared. This is changing now. Are you examining the possibility of enticing college students back, perhaps by helping to organize packages for the Spring Break when millions of them travel?
According to a poll by Trip Advisor to more than 44 thousand people worldwide, Greece is among the top five “Dream Destinations” for Americans, regardless of spending ability. Young people are a major segment in this trend and the fact that over 20 thousand runners took part in the Classic Marathon of Athens proves it. We are working on price-friendly packages in the spring, with an emphasis on cultural, sports, diving, educational tourism as well as student conferences in the fields of health and other sciences. The potential exists and it is included in our national tourism plan so that travel to Greece among young people who love and choose our country could be even easier.
AHEPA held a memorable national convention in Athens a few years ago, the Hellenic American Doctor’s Association met in Kos the year before, and the Pancretan Association did its convention on a cruise ship around Crete. After the economic crisis in 2010 this promising trend was interrupted. Given that Greece could use all the help it can get, are you planning to more actively work with major American Greek organizations in order to hold conventions in Greece or encourage group visits?
The Greek National Tourism Organization and our offices overseas are already working on that. It would be an honor for us and a crucial step if AHEPA and other major Greek American organizations host their conferences in Greece. We can provide them with state-of-the-art facilities. We encourage group visits that will combine work and vacation with a cruise to the islands and visits to archeological sites, making their experience unique. Under my leadership, our ministry aims to enhance communication and cooperation with major Greek American cultural and scientific organizations.
The country is in need of foreign investment and tourism is her “heavy industry”. What are some areas where Greek Americans could put their money and expertise to work?
There is already a flexible and modern framework that facilitates investment in Greece. This framework offers more and better opportunities to invest in tourism with new products and services while curtailing bureaucracy. Golf courses, marinas, spas, hotels and condo hotels and many other sectors offer great opportunities to those who wish to exploit them. I welcome all potential investors to join us in exploring these possibilities for mutual benefit.
Due to the negative images coming out of Greece for some time now, many Americans are concerned with safety in visiting the country. Although statistics still have Athens as one of the safest cities on earth, what would you say to them to make them feel better?
Greece is a safe and friendly destination, a member of the European Union family of nations and other Euro-Atlantic organizations. Athens, despite what the international media showed, often times exaggerating, never lost her identity, her charm and her distinct cultural features. The smile was not wiped off people’s faces and the unique Greek hospitality was never affected. Athens is a modern European metropolis with millennia-old history and civilization. You can visit the Acropolis, then the new Acropolis Museum, and then stroll through the beauty of her distinctly cosmopolitan streets for an unparalleled experience.
Many Americans also feel uneasy with the noted increase in radicalism within Greek society, including anti-Semitism. This is the last thing the country needs right now. How are you dealing with that?
There is no anti-Semitism in Greece. Our society hasn’t faced on a large scale this blight. Greece is the country that gave birth to democracy and our everyday struggle has freedom, social justice and respect of human rights at its core. Everybody is welcome in Greece to enjoy their vacation with safety and to experience firsthand the hospitality she is famous for.
A message to the Greek American community?
I want to thank them from my heart for what they have done and continue to do for our common fatherland. They keep our traditions, the language and customs alive, and they know how to overcome obstacles and to distinguish themselves in every field of endeavor, while they remain on Greece’s side. They keep our Greek soul alive in the New World, displaying virtue and love for the country. We are grateful for their contributions to Greece and Hellenism at large.