Interview with Nikolaos Bakatselos, President, American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce

Interview with Nikolaos Bakatselos, President, American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce


BF: Greece has seen a fast economic turnaround, with the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio decreasing by 20% in 2022. The European Commission’s November 2022 forecast for the Greek economy predicted GDP growth of 6.0 percent in 2022 – nearly double the EU average. To start the interview, tell us what are the main factors behind Greece’s fast economic rebound following the pandemic? What new industrial segments are now leading the country’s renewed momentum?

Nikolaos Bakatselos: Recently, there has been a notable surge of interest in the realms of energy and infrastructure. Consequently, we see a substantial uptick in collaboration between Greek and US companies within this sector. We have numerous American tech companies investing in Thessaloniki and in Greece at large. We have seen a considerable upswing within these two sectors as well as in tourism and hospitality – two other promising areas. What’s more, the financial services sector significantly bolsters GDP growth, as evidenced by several substantial investments in this industry.

Greece’s tourism sector has always held a strong appeal for foreign investors. But now, with the inclusion of the real estate sector, there is tremendous interest and growth stemming from tourism. A large part of GDP growth comes from the significant influx of tourists. 2023 will be a record year. In 2019, we experienced the most prosperous year to date, but 2023 appears poised to outshine it, not only in terms of arrivals but also in revenue generation. Notably, there is a substantial influx of US investment in hotels, resorts, and various other ventures related to the tourism sector, with a particular focus on technology tailored for the hospitality industry.

Post-pandemic, I believe Greece has experienced a boost, largely attributed to the way we managed the pandemic. The way we handled the pandemic gave foreigners the reassurance that someone really is in control and that we know what we’re doing. I think the messages conveyed by the Greek government and the sentiment among the Greek people have been positive. The recent election highlights a notable shift in the Greek mindset. After an unforgettable and decade-long crisis, Greeks now exhibit a different perspective. And this growth-oriented mindset is untethered by the events of the past.


BF:  Credit agencies have recognized the efforts of the Greek government. How do you see the next year for Greece? What is your outlook for 2023-2024, and your forecast regarding foreign direct investment from the US for this coming year?

Nikolaos Bakatselos: On July 31, the Japanese rating agency R&I raised Greece’s sovereign credit rating from BB+ stable to BBB- stable. I consider this shift to be a significant milestone, as it effectively marks a return to investment-grade status for Greece. That was the first one. Then on August 4, the European agency Scope Ratings also upgraded Greece from BB+ to BBB-, revising their outlook from positive to stable. These are clear votes of confidence – and a harbinger of significant future upgrades, by S&P and Moody’s. This is just the beginning of a series of positive developments for Greece. It is poised to lead to reduced borrowing costs and increased investor interest.

I am quite optimistic for 2023. To begin with, we are enjoying a period of political stability. The recent elections have yielded a strong re-elected government with a clear mandate for reforming Greece. This is critical factor in our outlook for the year ahead. Second, the Greek economy is performing above the average of previous years. We achieved an impressive growth rate of 5.9% in 2022, and projections for 2023 anticipate a range of 2.3 to 2.4%. Additionally, there have been improvements in the fiscal balance. For the first time, we’ve attained a primary surplus of 273 million euros  in 2022 and managed to reduce the fiscal deficit to 1.6% of GDP – both of which are highly encouraging signs. Moreover, the reduction of government debt is a substantial achievement, especially considering Greece’s sovereign debt crisis. From a staggering 200% in 2020, we’ve made significant progress, bringing it down to 171% in 2022. Projections indicate a further decrease to 162% in 2023 – a noteworthy positive trend. Finally, the combination of REPowerEU and RRF funds will help implement crucial structural reforms. These reforms will have a direct impact on key areas such as the business environment, labor market, and public administration. While these efforts are undoubtedly influenced by global economic conditions, geopolitical developments, the overall outlook on both fronts is positive. Having this recognition of the Greek economy’s efforts by the credit agencies will have a positive impact on investors’ confidence. I think both 2023 and 2024 hold great promise for Greece.


BF: Greece’s tourism sector, a key sector has been quick to return to business post- pandemic. As you mentioned, 2023 will probably be a record year for Greece. The country however has been put under a strain with severe heat, wildfires, and extreme weather conditions, unfortunately. Tell us a little bit about how significant US participation is in developing Greece’s tourism industry, and what further steps need to be taken to keep visitors arriving despite all these challenges facing Greece?

Nikolaos Bakatselos: Tourism from the US has absolutely played a significant role in the tourism industry’s recovery. The US Embassy here and several other institutions have helped in getting as many flights out of the US into Greece as possible. So, where we had one per day before the pandemic, now we have either nine or twelve per day. This is massive. Last year we welcomed approximately 600,000- 650,000 tourists from the US. This influx has helped driving up the average price for overnight stays. Beyond consumption, investments are a key driver. We are witnessing more and more funds and hospitality groups invest in Greece, investing not only in greenfield projects but also in the acquisition and revitalization of operational hotels. This has played a huge role in the recovery of the tourism sector, and I think there’s much more to come in this domain.

Just a quick note on this past summer’s tragic events. Of course wildfires and adverse weather phenomena can have a significant impact on the country’s tourism sector and most importantly on the well-being of the respective communities. Greece is concentrating on efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change, and specifically such intense phenomena, with investments in resources, as well as research and technology to improve forecasting, detection, and response.


BF: The US and Greece have also expanded cooperation in the energy sector, with Alexandroupolis Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU), the Interconnector, so the Greece-Bulgaria Pipeline and others. How has the US increased or diversified its investments in Greece over the past couple of years? What is the impact of US organizations in Greece in this sector and which other sectors do you think will see the best benefits for US companies to invest in going forward?

Nikolaos Bakatselos:  As a matter of fact, the initial proponents of highlighting Alexandroupolis were the former American ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt and AmCham Greece. Their advocacy played a significant role in drawing attention to the potential of this region. The first South Eastern European Energy Forum was held in Alexandroupolis several years ago, organized by AmCham Greece. Our efforts have been instrumental in putting Alexandroupolis on the map. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent change in geopolitical landscape has granted Alexandroupolis a new level of significance. The array of projects, including Alexandroupolis, IGB, FSRU, TAP (Transatlantic Pipeline) each play an important role in the region’s energy landscape. South Kavala with its gas storage and renewables further solidifies the area’s importance.

There has been a multitude of US companies that have invested in Greece and in that particular area. According to the latest US State Department Investment Climate Statement, this trend of the US investing in that sector will continue in 2023 as well. The investments in the Alexandroupolis FSRU and associated ventures help further reinforce Greece’s role in securing the energy transition and at the same time, they contribute to regional stability.


BF:  Greece is ahead of its game when it comes to digitalization of its public services, with Athens municipality boasting 100% digitalization at the beginning of 2023. The country is also looking to up its connectivity, with the goal of having 4.8 million fiber optic lines installed by 2027, up from the current 1.3 million. How would you assess the level of digitalization of the local public and private sectors in Greece? How is this helping the development of innovative sectors, and what opportunities has this opened for Greece to become an EU leader in the digital transition and reforms?

Nikolaos Bakatselos: This is a huge opportunity for Greece. In the wake of the pandemic, the Greek Government has made significant strides in advancing the digitalization of the State. This initiative serves as a noteworthy exemplar for other nations to emulate, and was a necessary step for any future development. I think the impetus for digitalization is not merely driven by public demand, but also by necessity and the exigencies of evolving circumstances. The robust infrastructure necessary for said digitalization played a huge role in attracting investments from major players such as Microsoft, Google, and AWS. Without this infrastructure, such investments would not materialize. It also helps interconnect different regions of Greece rendering the country an attractive destination for digital nomads. Again, without the requisite infrastructure for digitalization, this wouldn’t be possible. Overall, there’s a significant drive towards this future-oriented approach – infrastructure is not just a necessary evil; it’s an absolute necessity.


BF: The Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce has been an extremely active player in promoting US-Greek partnership for more than 90 years. The organization now represents more than 1,000 US companies operating in Greece and Greek companies operating in the US. So, tell us a little bit about the major accomplishments of AmCham. How do you see the mission and vision of AmCham? How is it helping to strengthen economic co-operation between the US and Greece, and what are some of the key initiatives that you are currently running?  

Nikolaos Bakatselos: I think AmCham’s role has been key in shaping and transforming how the US looks at Greece. It has been essential to attracting investments from the US to Greece. How do we do that? We focus on prioritizing regulatory reforms and streamlining regulations. This approach aims to safeguard the interests of investors and instigate essential changes in taxation policies. These two pillars are crucial in attracting investment and ensuring smooth operations within Greece. They lay the foundation for a conductive business environment in Greece. We want to modernize infrastructure. We try to create favorable conditions for trade agreements between Greece and the US. We promote the use, creation, and operation of investment agencies and one-stop shops. This has been a significant factor in the success of New Democracy government’s initiatives since the initial election. It is evident that these measures have been instrumental in attracting investments, particularly for those who don’t like too much red tape. We formulate targeted strategies tailored to specific sectors encompassing energy, renewables, technology, tourism, and real estate. One critical aspect we prioritize is workforce development. Without cultivating the skills necessary to excel in any given industry and empowering people to manage the companies investing in Greece, our efforts will be in vain. We are dedicated in creating employment opportunities and providing the essential training and education to ensure long-term success and sustainability.

Furthermore, staying true to our mandate, we do market research, organize trade missions and business delegations to showcase the investment potential of Greece. We actively cultivate dialogue between US and Greek government officials. We encourage bilateral investment treaties. We’re very much invested in sustainability. We encourage public and private partnerships between US companies and Greek government agencies particularly in the realm of infrastructure development and related projects. This approach is driven by the wealth of expertise and knowledge that US companies bring to the table, making such partnerships highly valuable for achieving successful outcomes.

It also crucial to remember the human element. In addition to our strategic efforts, we engage in cultural exchanges and bolster cultural diplomacy. We offer educational programs aimed at fostering goodwill and mutual understanding between the people of Greece and the US. These initiatives are essential in building lasting connections between the two nations.

Overall, if I were to describe the role and impact of AmCham Greece in fostering US investment I would highlight the following: we have organized trade missions, we have encouraged US companies to invest and collaborate, and we have provided an accurate and up-to-date investment roadmap to US companies. We have also fostered dialogue and trade agreements, encouraged partnerships, partnered with investment promotion agencies, supported education and training programs and promoted sustainable practices.

AmCham Greece boasts a membership of 1,000 members, with over 800 actively engaged spread across 20+ committees, all comprised of seasoned experts in their respective fields. The majority of these members represent substantial segments of their industries. Our robust ICT, taxation, and energy committees stand out, for example. The dynamic interplay between our members, these committees and the government, has propelled several reforms. I believe this concerted effort has paved the way for a great many positive developments in Greece.


BF: How would you define your top priorities as President of Greece’s AMCHAM? What kind of potential do the two markets have in further expanding co-operation, and what needs to happen that you are focused on these days?

Nikolaos Bakatselos: Focus is pivotal. I believe that increasing US investment in Greece requires a multi-faceted approach that focuses on creating an attractive business environment, building strong economic ties, and promoting mutually beneficial business opportunities. We tirelessly work to realize  these objectives, collaborating with industry leaders and government officials on both sides of the Atlantic – bringing people together. I firmly believe that seizing opportunities for our mutual benefit is the vision bringing the two countries closer together. This is the only way we can sustain this in the medium to long term. This is not a zero-sum game for both countries; rather it yields positive outcomes for both nations. Greece is a stable, reliable ally in this part of the world and perhaps it is the only stable and consistently reliable partner in southeastern Europe. I think this reputation carries significant weight in the considerations of the US government but also in the minds of US companies looking to invest, not just in Greece, but in the broader region as well. Think of Greece not as a country of 10 million people but as the gateway to the EU – a union of 450 million people.

Greece is a fantastic country – an archeological site from north to south, east to west. Beyond its historical richness, Greece boasts a well-developed infrastructure. It’s an exceptional destination for expatriates seeking work opportunities. The country boasts excellent schools, a stunning archipelago of beautiful islands, and a rich historical heritage. Greek people are known for their moderation, high level of education, and proficiency in many languages. And contrary to misconceptions of the past, Greeks are hardworking and accomplished in their pursuits. There is a saying- “When the engine is running and firing on all pistons, you have to give it more fuel”. This is what Greece needs, nothing more.


BF:  What would be your final message to the readers of USA Today?

Nikolaos Bakatselos: The time is now for anyone considering investing in Greece, the broader region, or within the EU. They should get here today.