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Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Greek tourism boon

Finally, the end of August has arrived. It was a long month in Crete for most of the residents, because it was very hot and very busy, with tourists weighing down the island. As the high summer season comes to an end (and the low season starts, which is at least two more months here in Crete), it's time to reflect on that great Greek success story of this past year: tourism.

Tourism in Greece has always been a major economic force, and this is unlikely to change in the future. Its role in the economy cannot be underestimated: Tourism composes 16.3% of the GDP of Greece, and it employs 1 million people, providing 20% of the jobs in Greece. So the tourism sector should not be treated lightly.

Breaking records
In the last two years, tourism to Greece has seen an unprecedented rise: more than 20 million visitors have passed through Greece so far this year, breaking all the Greek records from previous years, bringing in revenue of approximately €12 billion euro. At the same time, Greece has been struggling with economic depression in the last 6 years, and a very negative global image. 2013 was a landmark year for Greek tourism, with 18 million arrivals and 2 million cruise ship passengers making Greece their holiday destination. In 2014, revenue from tourism is expected to rise by 28% from the previous year, while arrivals to Greece had already risen by 26% until the end of March this year, and they continue to rise, with 4 months to go to the end of the year. So we really need to ask ourselves: What is it that has made Greece so popular in just the last two years? Why did tourists literally flock to Greece this year, probably making Greece the most popular summer destination? It's a question that interests me immensely, not least because I live in an area which is very touristic and the livelihood of most people invariably depends on tourism; but the welfare of my children's future also depends on this continuing success.

Stability amidst conflict
I think it's mainly got to do with stability - political stability, economic stability, stability in general. Up until 2012, the BBC and The Guardian, bastions of "impartial" news reporting, bombarded their news sites with a barrage of negative news items about Greece, culminating with the premise of the potential threats posed by Grexit (which is amusing in retrospect, given how Brexit surfaced this year). Since then, global media news reports about Greece have admittedly become quite subdued, with most economic analysts agreeing that there appears to be some kind of Grecovery taking place - quite the opposite from the doomsday predictions that were being smeared all over the web news up until just under two years ago.

We can't deny that stability has played a major role in Greece's rise in tourist arrivals, given the shocking state that her eastern and southern neighbours are in: the Arab world is embroiled in some kind of war. Arab spring broke out only a year after the Greek economic crisis, while the Ukraine Crimea crisis showed us just how far people were prepared to go to protect their sovereign rights. Iraq and Syria do not seem so far away from Greece. We've seen how Greece's neighbours express their anger over political decisions. Despite the fact that Greek politics deeply divided Greek society, Greeks didn't actively seek to exterminate each other. It is no coincidence that Greece is seen as a safe country in an area surrounded by turmoil. The internet has helped to spread the image of Greece as a safe and peace-loving nation.

If we simply stick to the premise that Greece is a safe country to travel in at a time when her part of the world is experiencing conflict, then this amounts to saying that Greece's success has rested on others' demise. Is this what has really happened? Do we really want to believe that people are coming to Greece because they can't go to other places? In other words, when stability returns in North Africa and the Middle East (and it will to a certain degree, as all crises do pass eventually), Greece will be forgotten and the true stars will shine. I find that impossible to believe. Given the rise in urban crime, notably in Athens, it can be concluded that there are safer places to go to than Greece. So there must be something else pulling people to our shores. What is that other thing? 

According to the Secretary-General for Tourism in Greece, Panos Livadas, who recently came to MAICh to give a talk to students, entitled Tourism as a Vehicle for Economic Development and Growth, the crisis provided the impetus for people to change tactics: since the beginning of 2013, there has been a shift to the use of the internet and all the new means of media in marketing Greece. So Greece has now adapted to current marketing trends, and is being marketed online through heavy use of social networks. Since www.visitgreece.com was created, it has been visited by nearly 10 million people, and bureaucracy has now been decreased to a certain extent to allow the private sector to deal with tourism without too much state interference. Tourism has diversified, and there are plans to create an enriched and balanced all-year-round Greek tourism product.

An information-based world
At the same time, there has been a shift in the people who deal with tourism in Greece. Tourist businesses have learnt the value of competition, and have since become more competitive. Sometimes, it all boils down to the basics; for example, it has been noticed that more and more Greeks who deal with tourists... big breath.... smile more than they used to. (I remember the days when they did not, when you were more likely to get a hoity toity scowl ,so this tiny detail does actually mean a great change has taken place.) Not only that, but more and more of the 'right' people are involved in tourism: as the state has become more competitive to beat off our competitors, so have the people become more competitive in offering better services and setting good prices. Greece is now also making firm connections with the new markets, notably China - it's the first year there is a direct flight connecting Athens with a Chinese destination - and Brazil - a huge campaign took place during the Mundial event.

So there lies the answer: Greece has had a massive increase in tourism in the last two years because... tourists have access to more information about Greece than they ever did before and they can do their own research about Greece before deciding which destination to choose. And the information they are getting leads them to the assumption that Greece is not only safe, but it is also a very cool - and cheap! - place to go on holiday. So the answer to the question about why tourism has boomed lately in Greece was a simple one: people are better able to learn about Greece on their own.

Sustainable tourism
Another thing that Mr Livadas mentioned in his speech was the human scale of Greek tourism. This is also identified in the experiences that tourists to Greece have, and how they disseminate these experiences to others. Greece's growth in toursim is based on sustainable growth, something that can be repeated year after year, without destruction to the social fabric that Greek society is made of, and this is something that travellers want to hear, given that the modern world lays emphasis on the sustainability of the environment. In other words, don't expect Greece to create a Las Vegas style resort, or skyscraper hotels along the Greek coastlines. A lot has been said about the Greek coastline in recent times, but some things that are spreading like wildfire on the internet are not even conceivable; this rests on knowing what to believe and what not to believe on the internet, and Greece is getting better at disseminating information, and counter-reacting against negative reports.

There is of course one thing that few people can deny about Greece which attracts people to Greece as a tourism destination: Greece is a beautiful country, and Greece's beauty transcends the nature of recreation while on holiday. Greece's beauty allows Greece to serve many different segments of the tourist market. Greece offers a diverse tourist package to cater for the great variety of people that humankind manifests itself! And the vote of confidence in Greece couldn't have come at a better time for Greece than now.

Hospitality from the heart
According to Mr Livadas, what distinguishes Greece above all in the way that a Greek tourist product is presented is that Greek people offer hospitality to the tourist from the heart, not just as a product. So in Greece:

  • You can rely on the lady who said she will be waiting for you to let you into the remote hotel or villa, even when your boat or plane comes in in the wee hours of the morning. 
  • You can ask a Greek for information and they will give it to you gladly; they will not treat you like a full wallet, nor will they expect to be paid for the yielding of information. 
  • You will be remembered on your second visit by the people who you met on your first visit, and this is what will make you want to re-visit in the future. 
  • You will be invited impromptu to join into a stranger's family meal and you will be made to feel welcome - and you will probably admit that this would never take place in your homeland. 
  • You will receive food gifts from Greeks, plastics bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables thrust into your hands - and again, you will admit that this would not happen in many places anywhere else in the world.

If you have come to Crete on holiday, you must have experienced one or more of the above. It is little wonder that people who have visited Greece come back again. Greece offers a variety of landscapes to explore, it is a safe destination for families, it never gets boring, it is impressive, and above all, it is the Greek people who make your stay memorable. Greece creates that feeling in you that makes an impressionable mark on you. Greece is that thing. You leave Greece with the feeling that you have made friends here.

Cheap flights, not cheap people
A lot has also been said about cheap tourists, and cheap forms of tourism. For example, people believe that Ryanair and Easyjet, both cheap seasonal flights airlines, bring 'poor' tourists who don't spend much money in the destination. It is also believed that all-inclusive tourism doesn't leave much money either. Both these beliefs are myths; here in Hania, we have evidence to the contrary. For a start, it should be noted that only about 30% of tourists  to Greece come with all-inclusive packages than have been pre-paid in their country of origin, so they are a significantly smaller portion of Greece's tourist numbers.

For the last four years, an annual survey on tourism, organised by MAICh in conjunction with the Hania Hoteliers' Association, takes place in Hania, spanning 4000 respondents per summer season. The findings over the years give solid information about the kind of tourists that come here, and what they expect in terms of services. Scandinavians form half the tourist arrivals in Hania; in fact, they are the ones that are more likely to book an all-inclusive package. Because Crete has mild weather, the tourist season is extended here compared to the rest of Greece. Those who visit Crete earlier (ie April-May) or later (ie September-October) in the season are more likely to be high income earners in their country, with a high educational level, and a greater interest in the history and nature of the area. They are also more likely to return to Crete for another holiday here, even within the same season.

One of the most important findings to come out of the survey was a direct result of Ryanair's appearance in Hania. Ryanair uses Hania airport as a travel hub for their flights, meaning that Ryanair flies in and out of Hania to approximately 25 European destinations. Ryanair passengers were particularly targeted as the group of interest due to the nature of the airline they were using; Ryanair is known to be a 'cheap' airline. It was discovered that people using Ryanair to get to the island come from all income levels, refuting the myth that cheap seasonal charter flights bring cheap tourists. Not only that, but those who use those cheap flights are also more likely to organise their own hotel bookings, so they are more likely to be independent travellers rather than package tourists. More than 75% of those surveyed find the prices of tourist services in Hania to be very satisfactory, breaking down another myth, that tourist prices in Greece are over-priced. Generally speaking, tourists in Hania are very satisfied with the level of services catering for them. Among their complaints is the road network - they are unhappy with the state of some roads, and the lack of signage. On a positive note, they find public transport services, including both buses and taxis, to be at a high level.

The package tourist
The Greek tourist package has undergone massive changes from the early days of mass tourism to Greece. In this article, the writer remembers a time in the 1970s when the owner-operators of village kafeneia (which acted more than just as cafes: they were also the local grocers, the receptacle for post mail, and the local men's meeting point) had no idea what to charge the odd European or two who passed through their village, for what seemed to the tourists like a three-course meal, because they (the kafeneio owners) were used to serving food out of love, and not for money. The writer concludes that tourism in Crete and Greece in general has gone from «value without money» to «value for money».

As for those all-inclusive tourists - the ones that book their holiday in their own country and come to stay in a resort hotel which offers them in-house meals so that they don't need to go out and spend money at restaurants - they are highly visible in Hania because... they wear a coloured paper/plastic bracelet, a bit like those bracelets that you wear when you are hospitalized (NB: we don't wear such a bracelet in Greek hospitals). Many people have the impression that they don't spend much money in the destination because most of their expenses have been pre-paid in their own country.   

The classic sign of the all-inclusive package tourist is the 'βραχιολάκι', meaning 'bracelet' (the package toursits wear one throughout their stay, to distinguish them as paying guests and not freeloaders at resorts); all -inclusive toursits are regarded as cheap tourists whose money spent on their holiday doesn't go into Greek pockets - seriously?

My own observations make me find this difficult to believe. This photo was taken at my local beach which tourists generally don't visit because they don't know about it (it's a local's secret). It may look like they are spending money on cheap supplies, eg water, ice cream, beer, crisps, sandwiches, etc, but as I observed this particular family for about an hour, I noticed just how much they had actually spent at one little cafe at the beach. I wondered if they would do this every day on their holiday for their 5-member family (parents and 3 kids). To be honest, I am not well off enough to do this myself every time I go to the sea. But this family - I think they were Scandinavian (not German or British for sure) - would do this every time they went to the beach or sat by the hotel pool. I estimated that they had easily spent 15-20 euro on the afternoon that I saw them. I have not counted the little girl's dress, which is made of batik coloured cotton, and has a meander running around it - even if it wasn't made in Greece (I suspect India), it was bought here, not before she came to Crete! So this family was definitely pumping money into the Greek economy. Even if they pay for their holiday before arriving in Greece, everything they buy outside of the resort goes into the Greek economy, and staff at the resorts are paid salaries. It may be presumed that the beach cafe owner was not ringing up the takings on the till, so that he can cheat the taxman - but I know for a fact that this particular cafe runs up all the orders, and we are always called back to pick up the receipt when we forget to wait for it to be issued! People who make these assumptions are generally believing their own myths. Tourists are spending money for sure, and my workplace has proven this for Crete.

And here is a close-up of the activity going on in the sea while we were at the beach on the day that the Scandinavian family was there - three mini-cruise boats (I was playing with the settings of the camera, hence the pop-art and dramatic scene look of each photo) were packed with tourists sailing round the harbour. It's not locals going on these trips - it's tourists, and mainly non-Greeks tourists.

Spending power
All tourists are the same in one respect: it all depends on the size of your wallet, what you feel you can afford, and how much money you are willing to spend in order to have the kind of time you want to have. During July and August, the tavernas in the old Venetian harbour of Hania were all doing very good business from what I noticed every time I was in the area. Some were full to the brim, others were mainly full at the front tables (ie near the seafront), but all of them were doing some trade (none remained empty). Tavernas are not necessarily preferred by family tourists (it's not just Greeks minding the pennies), as they will add to the cost of a holiday. Family folk will go to the local supermarket and make up their extra meals in this way by buying bread, ham, cheese, tomatoes, crisps, beer, wine, etc. And if they really do want to try a taverna meal outside the resort, there are deals for that too, all devised by local restaurant owners who are thinking up of ways to get those small spenders into their stores. But they are still spending money in the country! Coincidentally, when we travel to London, we do something similar; we stay with friends, we bring some of our own food, we don't go out to restaurants every day we're on holiday - we know what we can afford. 

Another way I could observe how full the town was with tourists this year was when I was standing at the traffic lights in the town centre, waiting to cross the road. Because our roads are generally rather narrow, there were times I literally could not see the traffic lights. I felt like I was in London waiting at the underground, and not being able to jump into the first train to arrive because it filled up too quickly. There are the stories my cabbie husband tells me: he spent most of July and half of August at the airport - they are the best cab fares in Hania. According to my husband, there were days when the taxi drivers weren't able to keep up with the demand for taxis at the airport! And here's another observation which struck me as a little strange: I was at Bershka with my daughter in the first week of this year's summer sales, and the store, together with its neighbours Pull and Bear, Zara and Stradivarius were full of tourists - they must be finding our high street shop prices lower than theirs! The town was constantly congested with cars and people: we know a rental car when we see one, and we know the behaviour of the drivers (a little reticent, they feel uncomfortable driving on our busy narrow roads) - and foreign tourists drive differently from Greek tourists in Hania (who come from the mainland - they drive like Athenians). 

Confidence boosters

If Germans are choosing to take their holidays in Greece after all the negative press about Greece in Germany, that's a promising sign. When a major German tourism firm is willing to invest in Greek tourism, then I'd say the real reason why people are coming here is because Greece is seen as a relatively nice and cheap and safe place to take a holiday in. (Ask the increasing numbers of Israeli tourists about this one.) If this means that some touristsn want to stay in all-inclusive resorts, then that's what we have to give these people in order to get them here: Northern Europeans like to arrange their travel through an agent like these tourist companies. Generally speaking, they like pre-arranged holidays, they want to know who to blame when things don't go right, and they want to know what they can expect in advance. It may sound like it takes away the romance in travel, but then again, if that's what a segment of the market wants, that's what we have to give them. What's more, there is enough variety in Greece to cater for the demands of a wide variety of tourists. I would never want to stay at an all-inclusive here or abroad, but that's me and my tastes - we aren't all the same. Thankfully, there is a great variety of tourism types to choose from in Greece - we are all catered for in some way. 

Tourism is the number-one driving force of the Greek economy at present. The economic scale of tourism cannot be compared to the novel ideas arising from the highly acclaimed private tech start-ups that are often touted as the key to economic development in Greece; they require a lot of investment and can be lucrative ventures for their creators, but they rarely employ many people, therefore limiting their wider economic impact. A big step forward in Greek tourism is to offer all-year round tourism. The biggest problem in this respect is trying to convince airlines to keep flying in the 'off-season', ie between November and March, so that the purpose-built tourism infrastructure (namely hotel complexes) can continue working throughout the year. Ryanair has come to the rescue as a first step to solving this problem: for the first time, the toursim season will be extended by a month this year in Hania, as Ryanair will continue flying from Hania to London twice a week in November. This is possibly a trial run for something bigger. Ryanair has complained of the high taxes imposed on winter flights, at a time when there are generally no tourists, and the Greek state could therefore lower the costs for airlines using the airport (ie drop the 12-euro tax per passenger). Sure, this can be done: but Ryanair must have sniffed something good happening in Greece, otherwise it wouldn't be doing us this favour, would it?! And look at one of The Guardian's recent pieces on Greece - towards the end of the high summer season, they are admitting that Greece looks to be back on track after all. Even Google is onto Greece: this week, it launches a program (piloted in Crete) to help Greek tourism grow online

Final words: image is everything
So it's all looking good: as long as we can maintain a good image and just as importantly, focus on keeping on track, we can't be doing that bad. Certainly, many problems did surface even in this record-breaking year: we still need to address very basic issues such as road safety, road construction and rubbish disposal allowing tourists to throw away their rubbish in an environmentally friendly way which is something they are already used to doing in their own countries (eg giving them the opportunity to separate their trash at the beach, which is not being done now). While there is definitely room for improvement in all sectors (notably in the lack of tourism education), we can't avoid the inevitable either: there will always be a crisis around the corner that will hit us just when we least expect it. One way or another, you will face a crisis and you will not be able to predict its form (unless it is a self-created crisis - Greeks learnt the hard way); you won't be prepared for it, but in order not to destroy your credibility, you need to react to it in some way that shows you are handling it well. But all crises pass, and the world continues to grow and develop after such events. Even though such events dampen our confidence levels, we can't let the culture of mediocrity hamper our development. Why should we pave the road to others' success when we can be part of the success story ourselves?

UPDATE: Ryanair certainly knows a good thing when it sees it; more destinations from Hania come next season.

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