Interview with Olga Kefalogianni, Minister of Tourism, Greece

Interview with Olga Kefalogianni, Minister of Tourism, Greece


Greece’s tourism sector is back in full force. Arrivals in the country up to August 2023 were up by 18% compared to 2022, with the potential of surpassing 2019 and making it a record year for tourism in the country. Can you give me the latest updates on Greece tourism performance, and the latest facts and figures. What main factors have allowed for such a high return of the tourism market following the pandemic?

2023 will be another record year for Greek tourism. We managed to recover the losses from the pandemic in 2022 and this year, we surpassed the results of 2019 both in terms of arrivals and in terms of revenue. The strategy that we have been following in tourism has proved fruitful. A very significant point was also the way we reacted to the pandemic; credit for that goes to the Prime Minister who took it upon himself to make sure Greece opened for tourism during the pandemic, of course under strict safety measures. Greece was able to regain its losses this way and put itself in a better position than its competitors.

Based on this very positive review of tourism this year, we are starting to build a new strategy around sustainability. The most important aspect for us is to not only protect and cater for the natural and cultural environment but also to make sure that the local communities benefit from the gains from tourism.  The new era for Greek tourism will be about balancing the positive effects of tourism with local economies and communities, while at the same time protecting and preserving the natural and cultural environment.


What major infrastructure projects are we currently seeing in Greece that will enhance tourism and transform the country’s product – such as the Ellinikon mega-project in Athens?

On the one hand we have these Giga projects that, once materialized, will change the image of whole areas, but at the same time we are also working on upgrading facilities that are crucial for tourism. We are currently financing such projects through the European Union Fund for Recovery and Resilience (RFF) that was launched as a response to the pandemic. The Ministry of Tourism is upgrading facilities in marinas, therefore focusing significantly on yachting and maritime tourism, as well as facilities in our mountainous areas; Greece has stunning mountainous areas, including ski resorts, and we are also upgrading lodgings and facilities for trekking.

We are bidding more in upgrading infrastructure in the lesser-known destinations in Greece, which are on the mainland. We are also focusing on infrastructure related to thermal baths and wellness tourism and on everything that has to do with agricultural tourism, like gastronomy, wine tourism, etc. It is important to both have these major projects and attract investment. Lately, there are new, high-end investments in tourism, but equally it is important to improve such facilities that will enhance our tourism offering.


In July you outlined the country’s new tourism strategy, which is focused on achieving sustainable tourism development, diversifying offerings, strengthening branding, and upgrading tourism education. The country is leveraging the Recovery and Resiliency Funds to attract major investors. Can you tell us more about this updated tourism strategy? What are the main pillars to reinforce Greece’s tourism offering?

It is important for us to extend the tourism season, and this is also part of our sustainability strategy. We cannot have everybody come to Greece in July and August, so we are looking to extend the season, both in the more visited destinations but also in areas in Greece which are less explored, such as the mainland. This way, we can help every region in Greece develop its tourism offering and provide different experiences for potential visitors, not only sea and sun holidays, but also cultural tourism, agritourism, yachting, medical tourism, spa tourism and all sorts of more diverse experiences for travellers in Greece. We have a lot to offer but we do need to improve the infrastructure and promote this offering.


Maritime tourism is another area of focus: you recently attended the Olympic Yacht Show 2023 in September and emphasized yachting as another major focus for the government. What is being done to commercialize the Greece’s yachting potential?

Apart from upgrading the facilities in the marinas, we plan to promote yachting more. This is a very attractive segment of the market, and we want to do more for its promotion. Many Greek companies are in this sector, developing yachts and speed boats. This was one of the interesting aspects that the yacht show revealed about the Greek industry.


The tourism industry is committed to having net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 under the EU’s Green Deal. Tell me a little bit about what the government and its partners are doing to significantly decrease the carbon footprint of the local tourism sector? What are some of the major initiatives that are underway?

We are very interested in allocating funds for upgrading the energy efficiency of the tourism sector, especially hotels. We are working together with the Chairman of the Chamber of Hotels on the plan to have zero emission hotels by 2030. We are going to be stricter with the hotels going forward. This is the way for tourism to demonstrate that we are pioneers in obtaining the goals we have set. I think this will be very important for potential travelers to Greece: to know that their footprint will be zero.


Given the impact of climate change – seen particularly this summer during the heatwave – what is the Ministry doing to protect the local environment and biosphere? How important is ecological conservation for the country and its tourism sector?

Environmental awareness is the only way forward and is not only a competence of the Ministry of Tourism but also for a special Ministry for Civil Protection, which is implementing the strategies. Now more than ever, it is important to take preemptive action and not just deal with crises when they come. We must ensure that we can effectively deal with major events, such as those we had this year. Having said that, we all understand that it is impossible to eradicate the possibility of having a climate crisis.

It is important to see how one deals with such a crisis: with the wildfires in Rhodes, the Greek state made sure that all the travelers that were in the affected area were safely relocated within a matter of hours. Everybody was put in safe accommodation. So, whilst this was a crisis, it was also an opportunity to show that Greece has a plan to deal with such crises and that the hospitality industry and the local people come together, even under extraordinarily difficult conditions.


The USA and Greece are longtime partners, particularly in tourism. It was expected at the beginning of this year that Greece would welcome more than 1 million travelers from the USA and generate over €1 billion in direct flights. Tell me how significant US travelers are for Greece? How does the US segment differentiate from other visiting markets and what are you doing to up the spending of US visitors?

We are very happy to welcome more Americans. The US is a very important source market for Greek tourism. We had a significant decrease in the number of American visitors 10 years ago when we went through the economic crisis, and so we are pleased to see that the numbers are up again. Not only has the number of visitors increased, but we feel that the satisfaction of travelers during their visit to Greece has also increased. That is important because it is not only a matter of attracting visitors and welcoming them, but also a matter of being able to satisfy their needs.

 We believe that Greece has everything that an American visitor is looking for; the natural scenery is fantastic, and the islands are very well known and very popular. There is a cultural offering everywhere you go in Greece. The gastronomy is excellent everywhere you go, both in high-end restaurants but also in the local tavernas. I think there is quite a good deal of nice shopping, either in label boutiques or local artisan shops. There is something to meet the needs and expectation of all our visitors.


In November you mentioned during an interview that the government was developing a new bill to facilitate procedures regarding licensing of all tourism infrastructures in the country. With that in mind what opportunities do we see in tourism that may be of interest to US visitors in particular?

10 years ago when I was a Minister of Tourism, we set up a one-stop shop at the Ministry of Tourism to deal with tourism investments. This one – stop – shop helped accelerate procedures and tackle one of the big issues which is bureaucracy. It has really helped potential investors realize their investments in a short amount of time. We have seen some very important new investments in tourism go through this special department of the Ministry, and we want to make sure that not only the hospitality sector but also other tourism investments, such as those in the marinas and the mountainous areas, are also part of this need to expedite procedures and cut red tape.


This is your second mandate as Minister of Tourism which is good sign of confidence. You’ve had an incredible career in the private sector as well.  How would you define your vision for tourism? What would you like to achieve in your term as Minister?

I would like to ensure that the legislative framework provides a more competitive and easier way for people to do their business because it is important for the private sector to have a framework which allows for creative businesses to flourish.

My main vision is to position Greece as a year-round destination. While Greece is well known for the islands and for amazing summer vacations, it can offer visitors great vacations throughout the year. It is important to position Greece as a year-round destination and it is important to attract foreign investment. I have seen a lot of interest from foreign investors in tourism and I think we will see more in the future. Everything must be done in conformity with the vision to preserve Greece’s authenticity, its natural, and cultural environment. We always need to have local communities in mind and the need to have a balanced approach when it comes to tourism development.


What is your final message to the readers of USA Today?

Visit Greece throughout the year. You will experience and explore much more than you can imagine. We will make sure that whenever you come, you will have the most memorable experience.