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Hotelier Argyri Katopodi on how Greece and the Tourist Industry Are Coping with the Covid-19 Pandemic
NEO’s interview with Argyri Katopodi, a professional in the hospitality and tourist industry in the picturesque Ionian Island of Lefkada, offers an insight into life on the island, its economy, and how the Coronavirus pandemic may affect it this year. She also praises Greece and the new administration for their efforts in containing and handling the virus. If you are lucky enough to be in Greece this summer and have access to a car, this is one vacation destination that you don’t want to miss. It offers the convenience of safety, accessibility, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. You will surely be welcomed with same heartwarming Greek philoxenia or hospitality with which Argyri welcomed me albeit remotely, eager to tell me all about her wonderful island, and her push to continue stimulating the island’s economy, which is wholly dependent upon summer tourism.
How do you think tourism will be affected on the island and in Greece in general this summer?
Given that it is an unprecedented crisis we have to look at it day by day because the data is constantly changing. We have now completed a first cycle that has to do with the health management of the issue and with putting businesses in safe mode. This is a difficult year for tourism. The Greek Government and Greek people showed great responsibility and discipline in handling this crisis in a much better way compared to other countries and this is something we will try to capitalize on. Still, it is a fact that tourism accounts for c. 10% of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and when you add up its wider impact to the economy, this ratio goes up to 20% of GDP (or even 90% in some areas of the South Aegean). Nevertheless, we will make an effort, when the green light is given, to open our businesses this year but of course we will try to minimize our losses. We expect Government initiatives toward this effect. The country will refocus its supply sources away from traditional supply centers to domestic travelers as well as countries with lower risk that are nearby and have also managed the crisis in an efficient way. We expect that the year 2021, with developments in the medical community, will find a solution for management of the virus and will be a rebound year with industry coming back to its 2018-2019 levels by 2022.
What about now?
Coming back to the tourist supply geographies, the country will put emphasis to:
a) domestic tourists and the government are expected to provide the means for domestic tourism to restart by way of initiatives such as accommodation vouchers, etc.
b) tourists from nearby, lower risk countries, such as the Balkans, which will replace the traditional sources such as the UK, the US, Italy, France, and Germany who are experiencing this crisis in a more severe way
In both the above cases, I believe Lefkada has a competitive advantage that will put it in a beneficial status because of its close proximity to the mainland and its easy access by car. I believe that this year, travelers will choose to travel in the safety of their own car, thinking twice before using other means of transportation. As a result, destinations that offer sea without having to take a boat such as Pelion, Evia, Lefkada and Sivota, will definitely be the first choice for Athenians. Respectively, Halkidiki and the beaches of Northern Greece will meet the needs of the residents of Thessaloniki and also a number of tourists from the Balkans. Lefkada will attract travelers also from the Balkan region as it will be a proposal for holidays in an island with so much to offer and still, easily accessed by car.
So this may be a good opportunity for local professionals in tourism to capitalize on the advantage Lefkada has and re-introduce themselves both to the domestic traveler as well as to travelers from the Balkans region.
What is the main source of income for locals who live there all year round? Are they concerned about their economic future?
Most of the locals survive on tourism. You can imagine that a family that lives entirely from tourism won’t be able to survive if the industry doesn’t restart. And due to the expected shrinking of the tourism season this year, some hoteliers may decide not to open. The hotelier concerns revolve around uncertainty over a number of issues. I will quote some of the local hotelier concerns:
– Who will be responsible for possible civil liability in the event of the transfer of the corona virus to a Greek hotel, and how can this risk not lead to unbearable financial damage to the hosting providers? Will the tour operator make a disclaimer when selling a holiday package and who will have no responsibility?
– At the point the European aviation industry has reached, are planes ready to fly again and how fast will the skies reopen? How long will it take and which systems will need to be developed at airports so that there is health screening for travelers? What will be the attitude of travelers towards air travel?
– For how long after the lifting of the restrictive measures will the ban on entry from other countries (mainly the supply countries UK, Germany, USA, etc.) apply? In addition to the passport, will you need a health document? Who issues it and when will it be ready?
– How long will it take to develop (pan-European) commonly accepted standards of hygiene and safety for hospitality workers?
– Under what conditions will the hotels develop and implement specifications and good practices to receive visitors during the period when there will be no drug or vaccine against the virus?
So, these are still question marks that need answers for the hotelier to operate his hotel even for a shorter time period.
Also, looking at employees in tourism, the vast majority work during the summer period. The shrinking of the tourist season and declining tourism revenues will have a direct impact on their income. As a result, solutions should be given to those who remain unemployed but also substantial assistance to the businesses they work for. The Government is discussing this with relevant tourism professionals and officials and is already carefully planning the gradual uplift of the lockdown measures, as well as the restart of the economy and the tourism sector, and the ways to support it.
Does Lefkada have any advantages or disadvantages over other islands in Greece?
Leaving aside natural beauty, I would say that Lefkada’s highest competitive advantage is its easy accessibility from the mainland. This may prove even more significant during this crisis period as tourists – domestic or from neighboring countries – can spend their vacations in an island of sheer beauty just by approaching it in the safety of their own car, without the need to take other means of transportation that would expose them to crowds.
I understand you own a hotel on the island of Lefkada. Have you always been in the hospitality industry?
We have a small (52 rooms) family style hotel called Porto Lygia. It is located in the seaside village of Lygia, just a few kilometers away from the city of Lefkada. As long as I can remember, I recall myself being nurtured and raised within the tourism environment. My father used to own a small apartment hotel in the village of Nikiana, and he was also the owner of tavern Romantica in the old city of Lefkada, a business that he served for over 30 years. Through my father’s business I was able to appreciate the travel industry’s power and, as a result, I took the same path. Porto Lygia Hotel is a small beach hotel that offers relaxing holidays to people from all over the world. As a small business, owned by two families, we make sure our hosts have an unforgettable experience by the advantages provided by the sun and sea, and our personal touch and relationship with our guests. We want to make people feel at home, relax, and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
How is the island of Lefkada different from other islands? What makes it unique?
Lefkada is indeed a very unique island. When one sets foot on it, they quickly realize it’s even better that what they have imagined. Lefkada – or Lefkas – is easily accessible from the mainland. It has an amazing coastline and breathtaking sandy beaches. Holidays here may become either adventurous or relaxing. The people are hospitable – a recipe for the perfect summer holiday in the Ionian Sea. One significant advantage of Lefkada is that the visitor has many options of how to come over. Apart from plane or boat via Cephalonia island, it can also be approached by car! The island is less than 100 metres from the mainland coast of Akarnania, to which it is linked by a floating bridge.
Kathisma, Egremni, Porto Katsiki – some of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean are the island’s gems. These beaches have won international praise and are annually awarded with Blue Flags. The island offers all kinds of sports and activities, it is a unique location for windsurfing, kitesurfing and sailing lovers. The beauty of the island is diverse. It has narrow plateaus, fertile valleys, springs and small waterfalls, as well as gorges with rich vegetation worth exploring, whereas its flora also includes a forest with a special variety of oak trees. In northern part of the island, there is a lagoon which provides an important wetland habitat for many species of birds.
There are plenty of churches, monasteries of unique architecture, temples, and wall paintings that are works of art. This island is one of few places in Greece where older women still wear in their daily life clothes that today are characterized as traditional costumes.
Also, the town of Lefkada itself has a historic center, with houses of unique local architecture, narrow, colorful backstreets, archaeological sites such as the Venetian castle of Aghia Maura (Saint Maura). More importantly, it is the cultural heritage and spirit of its people which, combined with their hospitality and also the full range of facilities the island has to offer, make this experience a unique one.
How has Greece been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and how has it affected the quality of life and cost of living on the island?
Statistics show that Greek Government’s response to the outbreak of the COVID -19 pandemic has been swift, with decisions over a lockdown being made early. This decision, together with the wider population abiding by these measures responsibly, are the reasons why the country today has a low level of loss of life compared to other countries globally, and has managed to keep a low, flatter curve of pandemic cases. Having said that, one recognizes that economic activity will be hit this year.
Thinking of the economy as a whole, officials now estimate GDP for 2020 well into negative territory, with certain officials pointing to a contraction of -5% and IMF going lower, to even -10%. Sectors such as the tourism industry and transportation were first to get hit and will continue to be severely tested. The impact of the crisis to the economy and the individual will be determined by the length and magnitude of the outbreak, not only in Greece but also in other countries when it comes to tourism. The Government has announced a set of measures of c. Euro 17bn to support both businesses and individuals hit by the crisis and it is now planning for the next day, the restart of the economy. Due to the effective containment of the spread of the pandemic in Greece, the Government is now discussing ways of lifting the lockdown, a process that is expected to be very gradual and slow.
I imagine that it has been especially hard for people on the island, used to always being outdoors, having to stay in.
Nobody was prepared to live this experience. It was uncharted waters for everybody. I am very proud for all Greek people, most of them showed responsibility and immediately complied with the strict measures that the Government had to take.
At the beginning, it was very difficult for the elderly people to obey. You can imagine that here in Lefkada they are used to going out of their house, taking a relaxed stroll within the town or their village, stopping by the coffee shop to have a coffee and keep up with the latest news, or simply to mingle with other people. And you know all the Lefkadians have a little bit of “madness” that characterizes them. In the beginning of the outbreak in Greece, everybody was in the house except for the elderly. As soon as strict measures were imposed then everybody obeyed.
As far as the quality of life, we live in a paradise and not in a big city. Most of the people have yards or gardens so they kept doing what they were used to doing, except not going out on the streets and having social distances. The Covid-19 experience brought together families that were distanced from the everyday hectic life. Fortunately, the cost of living hasn’t changed, at least so far, but the outbreak has brought many problems to many families as their business had to stop operating. This means less income for them, with the expenses remaining at the same levels they were before. Further measures to be taken by the Government for the restart of the economy will inevitably determine how severely, or not, our local economy and its people will feel the impact of the virus outbreak.
Did you have any cases of the virus on the island?
We had only one case that was immediately sent to a reference hospital that treats only Covid-19 cases in Rio-Patra. The hospital in Lefkada is new. Management and its staff, with whatever means at their disposal, treat all the cases with great care. Fortunately, as I said before, we had only one incoming case and this person now is well on his health.
Do you feel the Greek government respond appropriately to the pandemic?
Greece has often been on the front pages of international news in the last decade as it was the epicenter of the deepest domestic economic crisis in the eurozone, many times criticized for its Government’s decisions. In this instance, the Greek Government acted decisively and responsibly from quite early. So very rightly, international press refers, with positive articles, to Greece’s strategy for dealing with the corona virus.
Thanks to effective government actions and prudent planning, Greece has managed to make the epidemic curve flat and this is continuously improving. As a professor from Oxford University said “The former black sheep of the Eurozone is now the European example of effective treatment of the pandemic without deviations from the constitutional order and the protection of fundamental rights”.
It is a fact that the government took the necessary measures, in comparison with other countries, to contain the spread of corona virus disease. If you watched the interview of the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the CNN journalist, Christian Amanpour, you will notice an extremely capable, technocratic approach that our government and Prime Minister have demonstrated of the COVID 19 management.
Lastly, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Lefkada, with which I maintain an inseparable life relationship. After completing high school in Lefkada and studied in London for my BA and Masters degree, then I worked for a number of years in major financial institutions in the UK, Italy and Germany. The love and nostalgia for Lefkada made me return, in 2005, to my birthland. I worked as a professor at the TEI of the Ionian Islands. At the same time, I served the local press for a decade (2008-2018) as the publisher and director of the newspaper Lefkaditikos Logos and the online newspaper LefkadaPress, while my involvement with tourism business is continuous via the hotel business and via my exposure to luxury hospitality tourism, as I am the owner of luxury villas on the island. Through my willingness and thirst for knowledge and continuous improvement, I am currently a PhD candidate professor at the University of Piraeus. The love for my island made me create a family here, a new life full of surprises. There is no better thing than raising your children in this island. The people here live in other more relaxed rhythms. The relationship with nature, together with the cosmopolitan life in summer, make Lefkada the ideal destination for all year round.