Interview with the Honourable Elena Kountoura, Minister of Tourism, Greece

BF: Business Focus (BF): We would like to focus on thematic tourism and how you are supporting the sector to diversify into, for example, gastronomic, religious and medical tourism, which are three key areas of growth at the moment. What is your plan to help these particular forms of tourism to really place Greece back on the map apart from just for sun, sea and sand?

Elena Kountoura (EK): First of all, I have to say that the national tourism policy that we have implemented since 2015 was based on 5 pillars, as you know, and we have actually succeeded in extending the summer tourism period from March to November. In 2015, when we started talking about the “365-day destination” concept, it was something that people thought would take many years to happen. Now in 2018, 3 years later, it has been achieved and the reason that we succeeded is that we negotiated with the big tour operators, with the bigger airlines and we achieved more arrivals from the tour operators in spring and autumn. We also got more direct flights and not only charters, but also low-cost companies and premium. But the most important thing is that, during the spring and autumn periods, capacity was very high – about 85-90%. So, this in itself is proof that from March to November we can not only prolong the season, but maintain our quality offering and high capacity of visitors.

The next step was to reinforce the winter season of December, January and February. In order for this to happen we needed to create new thematic products and also to introduce new destinations on top of the popular ones like Mykonos, Rhodes, Corfu, Santorini and Crete. We realised we had to reinforce efforts concerning the growth of the third pillar of our tourism policy – open new markets like India, China and the Middle East, and reinforce Canada and America – and the thematic products had to reflect the tastes of those new markets. So, improving thematic tourism was a priority and our success in this can been seen by the fact that we have had a lot of demand for investments.

We tried to implement our policy of thematic tourism for projects and sectors that were really mature, like history and culture – which are the protagonists for Greece. This country is the birthplace of democracy, the marathon, the Olympic Games, philosophy, Socrates, Aristotle, the father of medicine Hippocrates and so on. We really focused on the 13 regions of Greece in order to promote all of the competitive advantages and also to make sure that people will understand that Greece is more than an open museum.

The second thing was religious tourism, which was very mature, and the reason is that we have the holy mountain – Mount Athos, where we have so many monasteries, byzantine churches and the area around Meteora, which is a huge tourism destination. This was the other mature tourism pillar that made people from all over the world come and visit Greece no matter what they believed. Religious tourism is not just for those of faith, or faiths. This form of tourism is for those looking to learn about tradition, to see monuments and to find peace.

We try to promote the unknown. There is so much more than the Acropolis, such as Delphi, Crete, Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon. This is the country of Mount Olympus and its Pantheon, from our mythology, and we also have Odysseus and the Iliad – there are so many things about Greece that people are curious about and want to get to know. For some people, it is the dream of a lifetime to come and see the country where so many shared cultural and historical moments, movements and ideas were created.

BF: This entails not just promoting Greece’s potential internationally, but also building up the local communities and teaching them how to deal with all of these themes and the growing global interest.

EK: In our strategy, it was very important to involve the local communities from the start. Tourism is a major driving force for the economy and is the bridge for growth in other productive sectors of the Greek economy. You can increase exports, boost trade and improve transportation, as well as increase interest in a lot of projects in real estate, energy, construction and so much more, if tied in to our booming tourism industry.

For the local communities – jobs have been created. The tourists that come to Greece want to have an authentic experience and so, for us, thematic tourism was the priority. Culture, religion and then comes the gastronomy – which is very important for Greece because of our olive oil, yoghurt, honey and herbs, to mention but a few things. Wellness is part of medical tourism and is connected with thermal springs – we have more than 700 springs. It is important to know that the thermal springs in Greece are very therapeutic for dermatology and many other things. Older people are coming throughout the year, which is very important for us – not only in the hot summer season, but throughout the year. Our vision and target is to have Greece as a 365-day destination, as we have the right sun for 365 days. Winters in Greece are mild (15-20o), and spring and fall are on average about 25 o, which covers everything. For us, it was important to promote this as people knew Greece only for summer – hence the decision to focus on thematic tourism.

Regarding medical tourism – Greece has great scientists, excellent professionals and very wellknown and influential people in the medical world. We have had a huge success with IVF treatments – people have success with this treatment in Greece that the didn’t achieve in other countries. We are also very successful with laser eye surgery, and also with dentistry and cosmetic treatments. All of this comes at great prices that you cannot find in Europe or the US. We have the best value for money here.

We work closely with Elitour and with Dr Patoulis – its new president. We have had several meetings with the board to harmonise our efforts with those of the private sector, represented by Elitour. Through my ministry, we are working very closely together with that organisation, not only on promotion but also the criteria of hosting people, accommodation and tertiary services.

BF: How are you cutting through to target markets such as the UK and Germany with the message that Greece is the ideal location to come to?

EK: First of all with social media promotion. Secondly, with science and medical journals, because it is not just about going to a country that is cheap, but it is important for people to understand that they are going to a place that is secure and professional. We do not want the kind of medical tourism that promotes us as being cheap – this is bad advertising. We promote through social and science media and also take part in conventions for medical tourism – we want to promote Greece as being the mother of medicine, because of Hippocrates. So everything is promotionally driven but it is all targeted to the right audience and we want serious people to come here who trust our professionals. Also, through our Expo, our stance is that a lot of tour operators are exclusive in thematic tourism – not only medicine it is true for sports, extreme sports, cycling or even for adventure, and there are specific tour operators that deal with these.

We are also focusing on city tourism (city breaks). Over the last three years we have promoted this and in 2017 we succeeded in having Athens and Thessaloniki fully booked, with 90% of all the hotels at full capacity.

The UK is a huge market for Greece and another thematic product that we have for the UK is wedding tourism, as people are coming here to get married and honeymoon. Weddings take place in Athens, the Peloponnese, the islands and the couple’s then combine their honeymoon with the wedding. So, this is another product that we are developing and we are working with the right partners.

BF: Over the coming year, do you have specific strategic plans for what you are going to promote in the UK?

EK: The implementation of promotional activities is the remit of the Greek National Tourism Office (GNTO). The ministry does the legislation, the monitoring and creates the national tourist policy and strategy. We have all of the research of what Greece’s advantages are, the competition, where we stand and where we want to go. So, we give this information to the GNTO, and it handles all of the promotion accordingly and gives us all of its suggestions on what is best to do. Each year things change so fast and there is an updated strategy that follows the national policy.

For example, in the first year we were very focused on social media and the next year we identified that cooperating with big tour operators was very important. So we updated our policy and then we made further special agreements, suggestions and propositions depending on where we needed to be promoted more and in which way. There are also different demographic targets, for example we are now targeting senior tourism, where older people travel throughout the year.

Tourism gives 20% of GDP to the country. Direct and indirect employment comes to more than one million, which is fundamentally important to the economy considering that the country has a population of 10.5 million people. 2017 closed with a historical number of 30 million tourists, whereas in 2014 there were 24 million, so in three years the number of tourists increased by six million – this was a huge success. We grew 7% annually, which is double the world average of 3.5%. So, for us this was all important and the onus was to succeed after so many difficult years during the crisis.

We are blessed, because Greece has more than 16,000km of coastline and also more than 150 inhabited islands to choose from, which does not exist anywhere else in Europe. We have a unique beauty and tourism offering. So, when a tourist comes he becomes a faithful tourist in the sense that he returns many times, as he has so many things to see. The Ionian is different to the Cyclades, to the Dodecanese, the Peloponnese and then you have Chalkidiki – so much beauty and diversity in each region. Sustainable tourism is another priority of the government – the sustainability of growth in tourism and also the connection of tourism with the agri-food sector, because we have great products, and we are trying to give more value to our tourism product and to the people. Greek people have hospitality in their hearts and are very warm: “When you come to Greece you feel like you are at home – so welcome home.”

BF: Do you have a tagline that you use to link everything together?

EK: I have to be very honest, our budget is very small. We try to do smart and targeted actions, such as events, negotiations and agreements, in order to achieve more promotion for our budget that is tiny in comparison to our competition.

In the three years since we created our national tourism policy, we have been trying to promote Greece by using the slogan – “Greece – an old time classic,” the previous message of our “365 destination” campaign. The main part of the campaign was based on these two phrases. We wanted it to mean that Greece has to be a consideration for your holiday – that was the twist on the branding that played all over the UK. Another message was, “Welcome home and bring a friend with you,” which played in some other countries. This was not the official logo, because to have an official logo you need to have a big campaign to launch it, and to have a big campaign, you need to have a budget. At last, thanks to the progress we have made financially, our prime minister has promised us that he will try to give us a little budget for a wholesale rebrand, and the development and launch of new messaging, in order to try to do a new campaign. I am very honoured that he is going to do this and that he has understood the efforts that we have made with a very low budget. Now, he is giving us the opportunity to update our campaign for the future. I am sure that we will be ready for 2019.

As a government, in my opinion, we did something very important – we had regional conventions where we went to each region – the whole government and the Prime Minister – for two days at a time. Each minister spoke about what our plan is going to be for each region. At the same time ,we heard everybody, including the private sector, regional agencies, stakeholders – not just from tourism, governors, mayors, chambers – everybody came. This was started last year in 2017. There are 13 regions so our last convention took place on Lesbos in May. So, we now have a total picture of what the needs are in each region, where we have to work faster, what we have to develop and what we need to update so we can achieve better results. I work with all of the ministries because tourism depends on a lot of different sectors that intervene. For example, to have better services I have to improve tourism education and so I work with the Ministry of Education to bring tourists. To get visas – the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. To make sure that the beaches are OK – the Ministries of the Interior, and Energy and Environment for my investments. To make sure that there will be security and protection – I work with the police and the Minister for Security.

To ensure that I will have an economy that develops, I work with the Ministry of Economy and Development. To make sure of the protection of my professionals and business for taxes and anything that has to do with economics, I work very closely with the Minister of Finance. Of course, the most critical ministries for us are Culture and Maritime Policy, because we have the marinas, ports, sea markets, sea tourism and cultural tourism. So, as you can understand, I work with everybody. For everything to be in order we then need the Ministry of Infrastructure dealing with streets, airports and ports. If there is an earthquake, for example, and something in a port is destroyed, then we have to work very fast with that ministry to fix it – we have to implement crisis management protocols so ships can still come and go on time so that tourists do not have any delays.

Here in the Ministry and in the GNTO, we have an open door policy – if something is not our responsibility but we can help – we will do it. We have had a big success in tourism for three years in a row, such as historical records in arrivals and revenues, in spite of the problems regarding the crisis –if we did not have these problem,s then the success would be double! We want the growth to be balanced across the country and not only in popular places – this is a must for me and is a priority. The second thing is to have great services and sufficient capacity for our increasing number of visitors. I do not want dissatisfied tourists – I want them to be 100% satisfied.

BF: Speaking of capacity, Airbnb has been great success in Athens.

EK: Airbnb is a phenomenon, a global issue that I do not think is bad, but we need rules. You cannot stop something that people want, but we have to have better regulation. I totally understand this new way of travelling and we need to welcome it, but within a stricter regulatory framework. The truth is that, no matter what new trend comes along regarding new ways of travelling or experience, there needs to be rules. We had the same thing with free camping – there needs to be organised camping sites that protect the nature reserves, for example. So, for every new way of travelling, as long as there are rules then I am happy.

BF: What do you want to say to the British people that want to come here? What is the Elena Kountoura welcome to Greece?

EK: Before I tell you that I have to say one other thing. Over the last three years, my ministry and the GNTO have changed our philosophy – now, we are actively working with the regional governments, the local communities, the private sector. This is the result of a major collaborative effort. This success is an achievement from all of us, because we are finally united as a collective force and the government – the ministers – they all really helped me in achieving this. Our tourism sector is very strong, but at the same time it is also very sensitive as well. With the help of everybody – Greece is united, because tourism is a national issue and this is why this success was achieved. It is a team effort. My message as the Minister of Tourism? I would like say to the British people, and to the people that want to travel and visit Greece, the following: Greece is a small piece of paradise on earth and they should not miss it. They should visit for sure, because they will have great experiences. Authentic experiences.