How Greece is tackling overtourism, the migrant crisis and the fallout from Thomas Cook’s failure
Greece is bracing itself for a repeat of the migrant crisis that struck the region in 2015, with the United Nations reporting that monthly sea arrivals rose to more than 10,000 in September, the highest figure since 2016.
But a new government in Athens is determined not to let the influx of refugees derail the nation’s vital tourism industry.
“We are dealing with a migrant crisis much more effectively and aggressively than the previous government,” said new tourism minister Harry Theoharis.
“As a result, we are certain that it will not affect at all the experience of tourists coming to Greece.”
In October, the United Nations called on the Greek government to move asylum seekers urgently from the islands dotted about the Aegean Sea, some just miles from the Turkish coast, to the mainland to be processed. It said at least 30,000 people were seeking shelter on the Greek islands, including 4,400 unaccompanied children; Lesvos, Samos and Kos are those with “official reception centres” running over capacity.
The UN said Greece had received 45,600 of the 77,400 people who had crossed the Mediterranean in 2019 up to October, more than Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus combined.
Theoharis, who was appointed in July, when the New Democracy party had its best general election since 2007, said the issue is beyond the remit of the ministry of tourism. “We are doing everything we can to minimise the potential impact of the crisis,” he said, “having in mind that this is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis.”
Following the migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016, there was a confused picture as to whether the issue had kept visitors away from the islands. Then tourism minister Elena Kountoura said the region’s popularity among holidaymakers had been unaffected and that “everyday life on the islands has been normal”.
However, she admitted that bookings were down in Kos and Lesvos. The mayor of Samos, Michalis Angelopoulous, said at the time arrivals were down 37 per cent.
But across the country Greece has seen its international arrivals grow steadily in recent years, with 30.1 million visiting in 2018, up from 27.2m in 2017 and 24.8m in 2016.
Theoharis is confident the industry will continue to grow and dismissed concerns that islands will suffer the consequences of overtourism. Earlier this year, a report by the European Parliament warned that Santorini, popular for its photogenic, white-washed buildings and picture-perfect sunsets, was at risk of succumbing to the uncontrolled flow of tens of thousands of tourists a day.
Theoharis disagrees. “If you look at the international KPIs (key performance indicators), you will realise that in fact Santorini is not currently suffering from overtourism,” he said.
“However, a global brand like Santorini has to lead the way in terms of green or more accurately ‘blue’ sustainability initiatives. This is exactly what we will focus on the next few years, together with actively managing the flow of tourists and developing adequate infrastructure.”
One might assume that the problem has stemmed from daytrippers brought by cruise lines, as has been an issue in cities such as Dubrovnik and Venice. But Theoharis says cruising in the region has actually experienced a dip.
“In the past few years, due to factors that were beyond Greece’s control, cruising has seen a slight drop from its previous peaks,” he said.
“As a result, it can be stated that our destinations do not currently face an issue of excessive cruising flows. Having said that, as the area picks up and Greece enters again the calendar of the big cruise ships, we need to ensure that the management of the flow is done in such a way that does not create temporary problems.”
After being in the job for only two months, Theoharis faced his first challenge in the collapse of Thomas Cook. “We feel confident the long-term effects will be minimised,” he said, adding that destinations hit by the operator’s collapse, such as Skiathos and Zakynthos, will be subject to additional promotion.
His next big challenge in terms of the UK, will be Brexit, the effects of which he said have been “exaggerated”. He said when there is clarity next year “this should lift most psychological barriers and have a positive effect, if any” on British travellers visiting Greece.
Amid concerns of Brexit, overtourism and the migrant crisis, the new tourism minister, is unfazed.
“We are confident that Greece will remain a favourite destination for British tourists,” he said.
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