Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Visitors (Επισκέπτες)

On this day last year, two events took place virtually simultaneously, which concerned both my homelands: the Christchurch earthquake, and the announcement of Crete as a point of arrival for the 15,000 Chinese nationals stranded in Ghaddafi-ruled Libya.

Last year on this day, the strategically-positioned Mediterranean island of Crete became the planned reception centre for the many foreign nationals fleeing the troubles of North Africa, notably Libya, where there were many foreign workers numbering over 1,500,000. Up to 15,000 Chinese citizens were evacuated from Libya with Greek ships chartered by China. Many of them were brought to Crete, boarding the same ferry boats that Cretans use to travel to Athens. Once they arrived, they stayed on Crete for a period of up to a month, until their transportation back to China was arranged.

The Chinese government, in cooperation with the Greek government, chartered Greek ferry boats to transport their citizens to the island. The main urban centre of Crete, Iraklio, accommodated nearly all the Chinese nationals in their hotels, which, at this time of year, are normally empty, as Crete is mainly a summer holiday resort, and the majority of hotels do not remain open during the winter period.
Once they arrived, they stayed on Crete for a period of up to a month, until their transportation back to China was arranged.

This event was seen by the local authorities of Crete as an opportunity to help foster better relations between the two countries. The main tourists of Crete come from the UK, Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, including former Eastern bloc countries. Tourism ties between Greece and Asian countries, notably China, have often been discussed, but little action has eventuated from such discussions. For the last few years, a controversial deal involving the development of the southern Cretan port of Timbaki into a harbour for ship containers carrying Chinese goods, which would have been financed by the Chinese government, received negative attention by the local community. During the recent Greek economic crisis, the Chinese government stepped in with offers of investment opportunities to help the beleaguered Greek economy, although it was never taken up.

The imminent arrival of the Chinese nationals to the island of Crete was seen as an opportunity for the locals to provide their unusual visitors with a glimpse of what a Greek holiday may be like, and a chance to experience Greek hospitality, albeit under unusual conditions: the generally warm dry climate of Crete had dampened with cold rainy weather, as the first ferry boat made its way through the Libyan Sea to arrive in the port of Iraklio.

Local authorities began to prepare the local community by explaining to them the importance of such an occasion. It was seen as a way to foster better trade relations between the countries, and a novel way to introduce the Chinese to Greek products, namely olive oil and Cretan cuisine. As both the Greek and Chinese cultures have a long history stemming back to ancient times, and are both strongly connected to the culinary traditions of their respective countries, the influx of Chinese citizens into Crete was seen in a positive light, with a focus on the similarities between these two very different cultures, rather than their differences.

High interest has been shown by the Chinese market with its preference for Greek olive oil in the last three years. The three major importers of olive oil in China are Italy, Spain and Greece, since the companies from those countries cover almost 90% of imports into the country. In April 2011, the Bureau of Economic and Commercial Affairs at the Greek Embassy in Beijing in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry organized a series of events to promote the Greek product, which included a week of Greek cuisine in China, presentations about Greek olive oil for Chinese journalists and potential customers by chefs, retailers and importers of Greek olive oil.

The severity of the Greek crisis and the recent turn of events seem to have cut short possible developments that could have proceeded from our visitors' short stay last year. I wonder how those 15,000 Chinese nationals remember Crete today. 

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.