The coronavirus pandemic has devastated so many businesses. The COVID-19 crisis is an ongoing disaster. The storm cloud does have a sliver of a silver lining, but old ways anchor progress and sustainability down. The problem in Greece is, the future here is “pinned” to business as usual. And hoteliers are not part of the solution. The dogged traditional business practice threatens the future of Greece tourism.
I was reading this morning a report via Kathimerini featuring SETE boss Yannis Retsos. This one, accentuated by the media brand “Reuters”, cements hotel and tourism industry blindness in my mind’s eye. Again, key industry officials regurgitate the painfully obvious and prognosticate a horrendous return to failed business practice. The Greeks are just hoping and praying for bulging bellies at the buffet lines on the beachfront. Hoteliers just want their revenue back, progress, and sustainability to be damned.
Sad, the situation is just sad. The world has been turned upside down and hopelessness is the best world leadership has to offer. Nowhere is this more evident, than here in Greece. “Just send us our cruise ships and all-inclusive beach whales back!” Meanwhile, a golden opportunity sails past. Greece has an opportunity to shine like never before, only NOBODY out there sees it. How do I know? My closest friends and hundreds of my colleagues work in the industry. Not one is talking about rebuilding better.
Retsos and all his colleagues have a granite hard focus aimed at numbers, competitiveness, and making money the same way hoteliers have made money here for decades now. The rhetoric is about upgrading the tourism offer in Greece, but to these decision-makers, this only means new paint on hotel walls, WiFi at the beach, and upgrading 3-star hotels to 5-star hotels. “More people” – this is the message I am getting. Now the mission is to upgrade some roads, airports, and marinas in order to compete for tourists with other Mediterranean destinations.
They just don’t get it, you see? People don’t flock to Greece each year to avoid potholes in the road. The best travelers to Greece could care less if the airport is pretty, they are there twice during their stay. Exactly twice, and for as little time as is humanly possible. The “plan” for upgrading traveler experience includes new bike paths and making archaeological sites more up to date, but guess what?
I’ll bet you Knossos Palace will still have a run down, unpainted facade five years from now. When you hear the word infrastructure out of the mouth of a politician or businessman, it means construction contracts, contracts that will be paid for with EU funds, unless I miss my guess. Read the list from Retsos, on the planned projects. If you are a sustainability expert or a futurist, you may vomit.
Then there is the Bank of Greece urging stakeholders to “rework” the tourism model. While this is the path that should be taken, the bankers putting together their role in the redux are mulling profits rather than a real paradigm. How do I know this? I am a media expert, and you cannot Google or in any way search to find evidence of investment in major wellness, agrotourism, sports tourism, or any unique new concept for the future. Reshaping places like Crete, so that tourism is optimized for sustainability and profit, is still a pipe dream. Constructing a new port for cruise ships in Santorini? Really?
Nowhere in their dialogue can you detect the slightest hint of caring or insight into a truly sustainable future. If you read the piles of documents generated by SETE, the Ministry of Tourism of Greece, the banking institutions, or hundreds of thousands of media reports, you will NEVER find the real root of future viability for tourism. Read here the stories of Sri Lanka, Tibet, or West Africa, and try and fit those societal and touristic values into the Greece sustainable tourism narrative. You can’t. Trust me. The mindset does not exist.
No one advising the Greek government has brought up “The phenomena of overtourism: a review” by Dr. Rachel Dodds. Why is nobody talking about new pricing models to mitigate overtourism? A recent National Geographic report highlights overtourism as a term that even industry professionals have not come to grasp yet. So, perhaps our leadership only needs to be “educated” as to the real consequences of status quo tourism and tourism marketing? Maybe I can simply email or share on Facebook with Greek officials a procedure for learning more? Just go to Researchgate and search for “Overtourism” in order to find dozens of 2020 papers on solving for “X” – that should be a good start. Here’s the shortcut!
Greece has a very big problem. It begins at the juncture of culture, tradition, and existing value proposition, at a point where the crossroad veers off into expanded growth models, investing, and dinosaur thinking. Some would say Greece cannot reshape its tourism model totally, because there is no funding for such a gigantic venture. But this is a lie. In Greece, there is enough money spent on projects that will never succeed, to over-fund a new tourism model. Bankers are only supposed to care about profit, and profit for the long term, so surely there is funding for any equitable future, right? Well, bankers like things quick and easy too, and here we see the big hurdle. The “old way” must have big benefits, wouldn’t you say?
In her paper (PDF) “Concpetualising overtourism: A sustainability approach”, Dr. Tanja Mihalic (at left) of School of Economics and Business, University of Ljubljana proposes a holistic approach to mitigating overtourism. Her work can also help us understand why Greece seems to be waddling behind pigeons on this issue.
The Greek stakeholders are only in the “awareness” stage of understanding overtourism. This is one step above the “ignorance” phase. But this is only the case if we are talking about “carrying capacity”. This does not address what Mihalic labels as “Social exchange theory, quality of life (welfare), and stakeholder theory”, which has been a talking point for almost two decades now.
SETE, the Ministry of Tourism of Greece, and just about every other key decision-making entity in the country operate from the perspective of “growth led tourism”, to quote from the aforementioned research:
“The industry avoids all use of the term “overtourism” and tries to enforce the term “overcrowding” as noted in a 2017 report from the WTTC and McKinsey & Company (title page). This and implicit definitions of overcrowding as “signs of success” (2017, title page) demonstrate the industry’s current thinking about the phenomena. It is likely that the WTTC wants to soften criticism of the market-based, capitalist tourism system that produces not only benefits but also disadvantages.”
Dr. Mihalic discusses the idea of “degrowth” in her paper as well. And this is the real “fixer” for Greece, and not just in my opinion. If we are talking about equitable and logical solutions, then “placing the rights of local communities above the rights of tourists and the rights of tourism businesses to make profits” should be our goal. However, Mihalic’s paper is about getting a better conceptualization of what overtourism means. It is a “step” in the right direction, perhaps a step that Greece decision-makers can make in earnest now.
The pandemic has provided an unparalleled opportunity to, at least, take a pause to reflect. Unfortunately, it seems clear that key thought leaders are only pausing their hotel reservations systems, conserving funds, and politicking to get more EU help, before cramming still more travelers onto every beach in Greece. Maybe the next worldwide crisis will spur their ingenuity and entrepreneurial genius. this one certainly hasn’t. Hoteliers will end up being even more of a problem. Maybe a superhero like Ironman will come to Greece and change their attitudes?