Interview with George Hatzimarkos, Governor, South Aegean Region, Greece

Interview with George Hatzimarkos, Governor, South Aegean Region, Greece


Located at the southeastern edge of Greece, the South Aegean Region encompasses the country’s most vibrant tourist destinations such as Rhodes, Mykonos and Santorini. It has also been heavily marketing its local gastronomy, having been recognized as the European Region of Gastronomy in 2019. Can you give our readers an overview of the South Aegean region and what it has to offer as a tourist destination and an emerging market for other innovative industries?

The South Aegean is the biggest insular region not only in Greece but also in Europe, consisting only of islands, and with two major groups: the Cyclades and the Dodecanese. The South Aegean’s economy depends on tourism, with 97.1% of the GDP earned from tourism either directly or indirectly. That is a huge percentage.  However, we believe that you are not in danger if you do only one job if you do it well. We want to be very good at our job in tourism. It is a mature destination and the whole population, not only the business community, work hard at tourism. We are responsible for 40% of the income from tourism in Greece. We are proud that we not only have star destinations like Rhodes, Santorini, and Mykonos but also many others like Kos, Patmos, Naxos, Paros, Ios, Karpathos. There are so many places and islands in our region that attract more and more visitors.

Every year since 2016 we break a historical record in welcoming visitors. We started with 4 million in 2015 and we had a goal to achieve 5 million visitors, but now we are far higher than 6 million in 2023. We are very proud of being hardworking and successful in the tourism industry. Our goal is to set up new levels, not only in quantity, but to be up to date with sustainability which has become of interest to the whole world. I think we are quickly transforming the South Aegean Island region into an important sustainability hub.


Tourism hit a record year in Greece in 2023, with revenues reaching €19.5 billion compared to €17.7 billion the year before. In July the Minister of Tourism outlined an updated and ambitious new national tourism strategy which aims to focus on diversification both in terms of space and time of the year. How does the South Aegean Region fit into the government’s new tourism strategy? How will its new focus on regional areas and all-year-round tourism play out in the administrative region?

The South Aegean region is responsible for a good chunk of the €19 billion that Greek tourism has produced. According to the data that the Bank of Greece has made public, 30% of tourism revenue came from our region. The South Aegean region wants to be on the front line of all the battles that tourism as well global society must fight for sustainability. We are transforming the whole region into a sustainability hub, so that the most important sustainability projects you will see in Greece are all based in our region. On the island of Tilos, which is a tiny island with 800 people, we have initiated a “Just Go Zero” project, transforming the island into the first zero waste island in the world. In Halki we built the first zero carbon footprint island with GR-Eco Island project.

In Rhodes, we have an ambitious new project, the Rhodes Co-Lab, which consists of a 5-year plan to transform Rhodes into the first ever sustainable tourism destination in the world. We work with TUI Group, the biggest European tour operator, on that project. It is a holistic project, focused not only on protecting the natural environment, and not only about protecting the sea, the shore, biodiversity, or energy issues; but also, on society with a focus on upgrading the skills of our human capital, preserving tradition and culture. These projects are all about sustainability and how to transform the lives of future generations to be as good as the ones we had.


South Aegean has been hit hard last year by wildfires, luckily no human life was claimed but 135,000 hectares of forest and vegetation were destroyed, more than 50,000 olive trees were burnt. It was a sad thing to watch. On the positive side, what have you learnt from this catastrophe, and what are you doing to ensure it doesn’t repeat?

 The whole planet has witnessed huge wildfires in 2023. We are not in a climate change or a climate crisis period. In my opinion, we live in a period of a climate collapse, it’s no longer a crisis matter. That is why our region works so hard on sustainability projects. In Rhodes, we suffered the wildfires for a week in July 2023. We are very proud, despite the amplitude of the fires, we managed to protect human life. We suffered zero losses, unlike many other destinations sadly. We effected the largest evacuation in Europe, evacuating more than 25,000 people. We managed to not lose even one single piece of luggage. The whole community worked very hard for that, everybody was involved, and we managed to prepare 39 shelters for 25,000 people in less than 6 hours. It was amazing to see.

We lost the best 10 best days of the tourism season, but the island got back on track in 24 days and regained all the losses. When the fires were raging, most of the people here, in Europe, and around the world believed that Rhodes would be out of business for the tourism season in 2023. Rhodes got back to business within 24 days and broke its previous record in 2023. We built a strong campaign all around the world as soon as the fires were extinguished. I believe it made us stronger. We also worked on the forest that we lost. In 24 rivers on the island, we have major technical projects underway to protect the villages and the environment from floods. The reforestation group is preparing to plant trees again. The scientists advise to wait a year for nature to do its thing on its own, before planting trees again. It seems like now that we have had severe rain so far this winter, we have suffered enough floods in the areas where we had the wildfires.

The island came back even stronger and, for the first time ever in the history of Greek tourism, the destination was #1 in the world in Google searches. And these searches were not about the wildfires, otherwise Maui would have gotten the first position, they were exclusively for tourism. I think through these difficulties you get stronger. It says a lot about a society when you work together and join forces.


Mykonos and Santorini have taken a lot of the spotlight, so how are you trying to promote diversification within the region to direct tourism to other islands or during other times of the year?

In the past couple of years, we focused all our energy on digital marketing. Most of our campaigns now are digital and we work very hard on bringing information about our islands to people’s mobile phones all around the world through social media. We made two decisions: first, to be all digital and second, to work a lot with the private sector, meaning tour operators, travel agents and airlines. We work together with them on joint marketing projects. We have different campaigns for each island because each island has a distinct character and different personality, so we promote the individual characteristics of each island. The most critical decision that we made is that we don’t promote our name; we don’t sell our ourselves. For us, the brand that we promote is the name of each island. We have 50 islands, and so we have 50 brands. Rhodes, Mykonos, Santorini, and Kos are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in Greece. Kos is 4th most visited destination in Greece. We spend the money compared to what percentage of earned income in tourism each island makes. We are fair to all the islands, and we give them all a chance.


Overtourism is a threat for many destinations, from Venice, Barcelona or the Maldives. How are you working to develop other services that go on par with tourism growth, such as waste management, roads, infrastructure, transport and so on?

Overtourism is a very new discussion that appeared only over the last 20 years, beginning in Venice or Barcelona. The global scientific community has yet to agree to the definition of overtourism; it has a different meaning for everybody. Some consider an overtourism phenomenon if you go to a place, and it’s crowded. Some describe it as the lack of necessary infrastructure, perhaps creating a feeling of overtourism for a lot of people around the globe. So, we don’t know what over tourism is, exactly, but we work on promoting sustainability, for example. For us, the answer to the problem is not to impose limits, but to set the rules that will enable businesses to run without destroying the natural world, so it can be safely passed on to the next generation. This is what we believe about this phenomenon, and we choose to address it by promoting sustainability in every way we can.


Even though tourism represents 97.1% of your GDP, how are you trying to diversify your activities away from tourism? What more industrial activities are you trying to install outside its main cities, such as the islands of Patmos, Naxos, Paros, and Karpathos?

PwC made the decision to open a sustainability office in Rhodes, because of the sustainability project we worked on, the Rhodes Co-Lab. The project will be completed over a 5-year period, so PwC realized that this is a serious attempt and an important project for the whole world. They also want to gain experience as it is a holistic program. We also opened an innovation center in Syros with Cisco to support the much-needed digitalization of our economy. We formed some important alliances and are trying to get the public and private sectors to work together closely. We want the best players in every field around the world to work together, which is why we work with Cisco, PwC, and TUI.

We don’t target new industrial activities directly. We believe that if we continue perform well in tourism, then other sectors of the economy will naturally gravitate to where they are needed and fill the gaps. The islands are small markets, and it is complicated to place a large industrial company on an island because the comparative cost of production is higher than the cost for the same product on the mainland. We produce the specific demand for necessary industries. It is tourism which generates the need for everything else. The second field in which we have invested a lot is gastronomy. For us, gastronomy is a way to keep the farmers alive. We want the producers on our islands to keep producing so our visitors can experience our local traditional food, and by extension, our history, tradition, and culture. You can discover all this in the local gastronomy. For us, gastronomy comes second right after tourism. We were European Region of Gastronomy back in 2019 and in last seven years the young people from our island have trained, competed, and earned the title of top European Young Chef Award 3 times.


What kind of potential does the South Aegean region have in terms of renewable energy like solar and wind? What are some of the big projects you have in this regard?

There is great interest in renewable energy because we have two major sources on the islands: sun and wind. Now we work a lot with solar for renewable energy projects. However, wind turbines can be more problematic, as some local communities around the island can be rather hostile towards the concept of wind turbines, believing that they destroy the environment. Fortunately, the Greek government has brought about new legislation for the first time ever for offshore wind parks. This new legislation, not only for Greece, but also for our islands will reduce the pressure from the mainland and take advantage of producing power from the wind, without disturbing the environment of the island.


The government is working under its Digital Transformation Strategy to accelerate digitalization. How does the South Aegean Region play into Greece’s Digital Transformation Strategy in terms of your own digitalization and infrastructure deployment as well? How are you working to attract digital nomads in the islands?

We found that we were already a destination for digital nomads before making any effort to be one. During the first lockdowns of 2020, I discovered that thousands of people from the United States, Canada, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and France lived on our islands. They were digital nomads. There were people that didn’t want to spend the long time of the lockdown in their cities. There were many professors from US universities in cities like Chicago, Massachusetts, New York, and many other places.

Then in 2021, a year later, we decided to build a pilot project to learn about digital nomads, to find out more about their needs and habits. We built a project along with Cisco, who invited 50 of their employees from around the world to spend 3-4 months in Rhodes. We worked alongside Cisco to discover information about these people: what their needs were, if they wanted to live in isolated places, in the heart of the cities or close to the beach. We researched what type of food they ate, how much they spent, etc. We provided the housing and Cisco brought the nomads and we put together a survey. We learned a lot about digital nomads and are properly prepared now to provide for their needs.

This information and knowledge are useful because this is knowledge that we can pass on to our society. We discovered that these people who come to the islands want to live as simply as possible because, in their minds, life on the islands is an easy-going life. This is what they are looking for when they live here, an easy-going life. An easy-going life first means that they can do as many things as possible within walking distance. One of their primary needs is in Internet Infrastructure. They prefer local food to international cuisine. The first type of information they seek out is regarding public health services like hospitals and doctors. For us, it was a great experiment. We are richer in knowledge now. Digital nomads are now in our economy. The best part is that it works in the off season because the big islands have the tourism season from March to November. But we have digital nomads in December, January, February, and it’s very good for the economy because it means we have visitors off season.


The USA still makes up a big chunk of all the incoming travel to Greece. How important is the US as source market?  

The US tourist market is significant in the Cyclades but not that big in the Dodecanese. What we found out through Athens International Airport is that 50% of all the visitors who come to Greece from the US visit a city on the mainland of Greece and also visit an island. Our intention is to ensure that the island be one of our islands. We work with major travel agents and tour operators in the United States to promote our islands to US travelers. Our dream is to establish a direct flight between New York and Rhodes. I think that in a year or two we will have established that.

We just launched Fly Cycladis, which is a new company with small planes that go from island to island. We also worked very hard on another project to bring the hydroplanes here. We will have a lot of routes around the islands in 2025.


You’ve had an incredibly long and successful career having been elected as Governor in both 2014 and 2019, and recently re-elected in a landslide vote in October. What are some of the key lessons that you have learned? What is your long-term vision for the Region in 2024?

The biggest lesson that I have learned is that you perform better in politics if you don’t view it as a profession. I don’t have a major long-term vision. I am not afraid to say this because we live in a period in which the main characteristics are global crisis and instability. Nothing is stable in our lives, in politics, or in the relations between countries and states. Since I was elected the first time back in 2014, we have faced so many crises and all plans must be flexible and adaptable to change.

Transforming this region into the biggest sustainability hub in the world is something that I dream of. We already have one island that is #1 in the world in waste management, and we are now working very hard to make Rhodes the #1 destination in the world. If we are lucky enough, we will move on to our next goal on our next island, next year.


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

As people around the globe seek ways out of all the frustration that life now produces, many of them choose to travel to reenergize themselves. I feel that there is a huge energy bank in the world that they must discover, and this is the Aegean Islands. They can spend their time here however they want. It’s not only about sun and sea. It’s also about history, gastronomy, and tradition. I am sure the islands will give them what they dreamed of. We have so many islands with so many well-kept secrets on everyone. I think spending time on the Aegean Islands is the most creative and refreshing experience you can have, and the Aegean Islands are here to welcome.