Greece, the land of over 3,000 islands, beautiful beaches with clear blue waters and incomparable historic sites attracted a record number of tourists this past winter even as it suffers through the worst of the debt crisis. The heartening news came in a survey carried out by the Bank of Greece and published by ELSTAT, the Greek Statistical Authority, that showed arrivals increased by almost 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the similar period last year and surpassed the million mark in the normally tepid January to March period.
Tourism from Europe, although representing the largest share by far at 78.9 percent, continued to be weak and posted a 2.6 percent decline chiefly due to fewer arrivals from the United Kingdom, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Belgium. On the other hand, significant increases were posted by incoming Russians, Bulgarians, Spaniards and Germans with the largest jump recorded by Asian visitors, especially those from Turkey who flock to the Aegean islands close to the Turkish coast even in the dead of winter.
The tireless Greek Minister of Tourism, Olga Kefaloyiannis, who has been jetting from continent to continent promoting her country's appeal since assuming her position last June, says:
"The messages we have up to now, based on bookings and arrivals, are encouraging. We are optimistic that, by the end of the summer, tourist traffic will continue to increase as compared to last year, both in numbers and in revenue. However, the total account for the sector's overall performance will not be released until much later and, so, until then, we will keep working methodically, especially as far as targeting new markets is concerned.
Over the past year, I have made several forays abroad in order to improve Greece's image and to close important deals with major tour operators. In addition, we have promoted the issuance of tourist visas in order to facilitate the arrivals of non-EU citizens who desire to visit Greece this year and for many more to come."
Discussing whether or not the crisis had made the tourist product of Greece more price competitive and provided visitors with more attractive packages, Ms. Kefaloyianni continued:
"The tourist product in Greece is now fully competitive. When considering value for money, I believe the country has come a long way in offering very attractive prices for stays in top locations and high-end resorts. What I want to stress is that tourism is a national issue and, as such, we all have a duty to protect the quality of our product and pamper our clients with five-star services at reasonable prices."
Greece has a lot to offer. Beautiful islands boasting totally different architectural styles, magnificent beaches that are continuously rated amongst the clearest in the world, numerous classical monuments and sites, healthy Mediterranean cuisine, special vineyards and seas for sailing and water sports but, yet, the product's finishing must be improved.
As for the promotion of Greece's image worldwide, Minister Kefaloyianni was adamant:
"I have been running from country to country for this very reason. In my meetings and interviews with major television networks and newspapers, I am constantly emphasizing the comparative advantages of Greece and pointing out the reasons why my country remains one of the most popular destinations in the world. We are present at all the major tourism world fairs and we are constantly pushing for the simplification of procedures concerning visa issuance. The government also recently proceeded with a reduction in the value added tax on food consumption that we believe will be immensely helpful.
Greece is a charming destination capable of attracting top quality visitors from the numerous cruises that run all summer long and with its luxurious resorts that are spread from coast to coast. We must develop thematic and alternative tours, however, where, for example, we can promote our many historic, religious and sports venues in order to expand the season and make it a truly year-round destination. We are planning to build an all-encompassing internet network that will enable tour operators and others to effortlessly book their vacations according to their budget and interests. We have been recently targeting more and more long-distance countries like the United States, Japan and China as our aim is to branch and advertise Greece all the way!"
Undoubtedly, much still remains to be done in order to advance the tourist product in Greece but the country continues to invest heavily in this most important industry in order to maximize the benefits in the midst of the economic crisis. This is a promising reality!!!