Tourism is a pillar of the Greek economy, accounting for over 20% of GDP. Last year the country received a record-setting 33 million visitors, yet tourism remains highly seasonal and concentrated on the islands. Minister Harry Theoharis explains the country’s vision for a more diversified and modern industry that will incorporate important aspects such as sustainability and accessibility
How is your political experience helping you deal with the challenges that come with the role of tourism minister?
I am a center politician and I think that this is a big asset for tourism, which is a national issue that should not be affected by the regular parameters of political infighting. There’s not much at stake here in terms of political issues, it’s really a matter of ensuring that we have steady and solid industry growth, as opposed to “yo-yo” patterns of over-investment followed by collapse. And in order to achieve that, we need as calm a political climate as possible, and as far as I and my ministry are concerned, we’re going to try our best to provide it.
What priorities have you set for yourself and for the sector?
The priorities have to do with the overall upgrade of what Greece has to offer in terms of tourism. This means on one hand sustainability – economic, social and environmental – and we will announce a number of measures to ensure that Greek enterprises offer a product that is sustainable. Another aspect is accessibility: making sure that all kinds of people from all walks of life are able to enjoy a good vacation here in Greece. The third issue is ensuring diversity in terms of our destinations, so people can enjoy different parts of Greece that they don’t know about, and a diversity of products: we have beaches but also mountains and skiing, cultural attractions, marine-themed options and more. We are also seeking seasonal diversity, as we have a lot to offer in the winter that many people don’t know about.
How can you promote all-year-round tourism and encourage travel to less well-known destinations?
Many options come to mind. One is talking with the airlines to ensure connectivity at different times of the year. Another is ensuring that we have promising destinations that can show immediate dynamism and promoting them in the next few months. We also have global tourism events on the agenda, and we will push the regions to come up with destinations that they feel have potential for growth. We have established a regional touristic council in order to hold talks with the 13 regions of Greece every two months and ensure that these requests are being implemented.
Are there any specific regions that you will be focusing on in the coming months?
The focus needs to come from the regions themselves, and they will be given every opportunity to come up with interesting propositions. Having said that, I’m sure that some regions will be more ready than others. I am thinking of Ipiros, which is on the verge of becoming a significant destination with a bit of help.
In the past you have mentioned ecotourism and medical tourism as areas with a potential for growth in Greece. What are your views on this?
Ecotourism is a brand of tourism that supports the kind of image we want to portray: an image of sustainability. More and more people are demanding this kind of offer so that ecotourism is no longer really an option; it’s a necessity. It’s important for us to establish the kind of ecotourism that is at the forefront of this current demand. As for medical tourism, there are already people who are coming to Greece from abroad, from as far away as Australia, to have surgeries here. But there are other things we need to do to help not just the people having operations, but also those with special health requirements, such as dialysis patients.
Tourist arrivals have increased, with around 33 million visitors in 2018. Which countries send the most tourists to Greece, and which ones do you want to focus on?
Most of our tourists used to arrive by air, but now one third of them come by land due to the opening up of the Balkans and Eastern Europe markets. Most of our tourism is from Europe, and within that, mostly from Germany. The German tourists also stay longer than many other visitors. As for other parts of the world, we want to push into different directions, such as those countries with a strong Greek element because of the diaspora: US, Canada, Australia come to mind. We also want to keep an eye on the Asian market: China is a dynamic country, and Chinese tourists do not come for the sun and sand, they come mainly for cultural reasons, and they come year-round. We should also talk about Russia, Saudi Arabia and India as countries with a potential for tourism.
Arrivals from Germany slightly decreased in 2019, partly due to competition from other destinations such as Turkey. How do you handle these challenges to the Greek tourism industry?
Tourism is an international endeavor, and you’re always exposed to brutal market forces. Sometimes these forces work in your favor, and other times they do not. Security is always a very important issue. But we are used to the competition, and our biggest advantage as far as our neighborhood is concerned is that we are a safe country. People can come here and feel free to explore and learn without confining themselves to a pre-packaged experience that keeps them mostly within the confines of their hotel.
What are some of your projects to upgrade the infrastructure, and how can German investors participate?
There are many aspects to this upgrade. One is the tourism infrastructure per se, such as the marinas, which are not at the level of service that we would like them to be. Another aspect is private infrastructure such as hotels, where we want to push for sustainability, accreditation and so on. The third aspect is general infrastructure, which has an effect on the entire experience: I am thinking about energy, waste management and more. The increase in tourism of the past few years has created a strain on these types of infrastructure, especially during the peak summer months.
Another key element of your tourism development plan is reducing VAT to enhance competitiveness. What other measures are you contemplating?
This is an important pillar ensuring we are on a level playing field with our competitors. In terms of taxes there are constraints within the EU that our non-EU competitors do not have, and we have to live with this environment. The next level of help that our enterprises will get is from social security contributions.
What is your long-term vision for Greek tourism, which is a pillar of the national economy, accounting for over 20% of GDP?
The ministry is drafting a 10-year plan to provide continuity despite the political changes, and to give a long-term view to investors interested in Greece. Having a framework is important, and that is the most interesting aspect of the plan. We also want to focus on a few key areas that will let everyone do their own planning: sustainable growth, infrastructure and its requirements, connectivity, and accessibility.