On February 27th of 2020, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced that all carnivals and festivals were canceled until further notice. More than a week later Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced COVID-19 as a pandemic. The Greeks were so far ahead of the coronavirus crisis at that point, no cases had even crossed the country’s borders. The world took notice.
An Epic Response to Catastrophe
As Greece moves to reopen its borders to tourists this week, we must frame the resiliency and extraordinary efforts the Greeks are making in these chaotic times. Not too many reading here will recall how Mitsotakis’ administration pulled together an emergency committee of scientists, top epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, and virologists to lead the way for the administration to deal with a truly viral, rapidly developing situation back in February and early March. Before most other countries even had time to acknowledge there was a threat, the Greek administration had already closed every school and university. And by March 22nd, the entire country was under strict lockdown. Restaurants and other businesses have already been closed to block the spread of COVID-19.
Here on Crete we stayed confined to our homes except for in extraordinary circumstances. Doctor visits, trips on foot to the grocery store, exercise, and walking pets were allowed with a printed affirmation of understanding in hand. But the feeling of confinement was felt by all. Still, in a country notorious for its free-spiritedness, everyone, and I mean everyone did their part. The spirit the Cretans showed, the concern and solidarity in following Mitsotakis’ lead was profound. And I say this as an American living on Crete. Three months down the road and the Athens officials are systematically rebooting tourism.
Greece, now considered the model for pandemic responsiveness, is being billed as the safest destination 2020 tourists can travel to. The Greeks are in the spotlight due to their pandemic response, and they’re putting their reputations on the line taking a huge chance. But, it’s a move Mitsotakis and the other decisionmakers cannot avoid since 25% of Greece’s economy depends on tourism. The Greek leader put things in perspective when he said Greece had been considered “the punching bag of Europe.” Now, having shown the whole world how to handle a veritable plague, everyone is wondering if the administration can get tourism back on track.
At stake are thousands of businesses, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and a catastrophe ten times worse than the financial crisis of 2008-2009. The Hellenic Chamber of Hotels says as many as 65% of hotels will go bankrupt this year. The same holds for restaurants and other businesses tied closely to tourism. 2020 is a real moment of truth for the Greeks.
I’ve covered the news from the national, international, business, and governmental perspective these last months. And we’ve spotlighted many Cretans weathering this unbelievable storm. The businesses tied so closely to Crete’s tourism have not been in tight focus, this is what I ventured to nearby Agia Pelagia this morning. A friend there who created an amazing stay for travelers back in 2018 seemed like a great person to talk to about the prime minister’s Greek Vacation 2020 initiative. Dimitris Markakis, who’s owner of Agia Pelagia’s SeaScape Luxury Residences, is a Crete businessman with varied interests. It was not until his opening of his luxury residences a couple of years ago, that he had any experience in hospitality. The last couple of years Markakis’ new business venture has thrived in unprecedented fashion. But the pandemic has put the brakes on, as is the case with all Greek hotels. I was interested to get Markakis’ take on quite a few things, so I was delighted to meet with him at the property today.
Markakis is no stranger to risk and pressure, and this latest crisis has heaped more onto businesses than some can handle. SeaScape back before its grand opening in late Spring of 2018, was a project that looked like a disaster the day before opening, and like a stunning success story the next day. When Markakis cut the ribbon opening day, I’ll swear I could hear him sigh a sigh of relief. For anyone who’s ever built anything big, I am sure you’ll identify. Fast forward to this morning, and I wanted to know what the Heraklion businessman thought of the tourism season to come.
The SeaScape developer met me at the entrance after excusing himself from a COVID-19 mini-seminar being given to his employees by government officials. “What ironic,” I thought as I put in perspective how hoteliers and officials have so much more on their plates now. COVID-19 has not just put jobs on hold and threatened livelihoods, it has completely altered the way business will operate. And in tourism, the pandemic has put barriers up that many will not be able to overcome. Not everybody has the foresight and wherewithal to get ahead of the “curve” as Markakis has.
We talked at length about protracted scenarios, and in the end, he stressed a bit over ultimate failure if this goes on for years. But Markakis is the quintessential Cretan, these people do not know how to give up. Profits are down the tubes for 2020. Nobody knows if ANY tourists will sail, drive, or fly to Crete. But the plans that are rescuable, Markakis and most others are dead set on accomplishing them. He is opening SeaScape for the season at the end of June and already has a few bookings.
SeaScape is an interesting proposition, pandemic or not. I asked Markakis if he thinks his self-catering/residence proposition now has an advantage market-wise. Always conservative and humble, the entrepreneur was reluctant to state an opinion on how Crete’s market should be divided, but he did say SeaScape’s model gives certain travelers a lot more flexibility and freedom to create their own experiences. There is a niche on Crete and in other markets for stays that give guests the ultimate freedom to choose their cuisine, their touristic plan, and the scheduling. Markakis called SesScape Luxury Residences “a fusion of luxury lifestyle and experiential travel that delivers this kind of flexibility.”
After our chat, I walked down to the picture-postcard perfect Agia Pelagia Bay, just to see if any tourists or even locals were taking advantage of the seaside paradise. I am not sure why but seeing the immaculate stretch of sand and crystal sea almost abandoned in June, it made me freak out a bit. Usually, Agia Pelagia is alive with sunbathers, swimmers, water sports enthusiasts, and vacationers enjoying the local cafes and tavernas. A dozen locals taking it easy on the beach put me in Sci-Fi horror mode. Diver’s Club Crete, in business 25 years, was closed for the day in mid-June. Almyra, our favorite seaside hangout, was all but deserted. The shops, while open, had no patrons anywhere in sight.
Markakis: “Never Give Up”
However, Dimitris Markakis and others here on Crete maintain an amazing attitude of positivity. Unlike Americans and British people, the Italians or Germans I talk to, the Greeks seem to have this shield of positivity that can only have some from adversity. More than a decade of austerity could not destroy their spirit. Being labeled a kind of banana republic of Europe never dismayed them. And the plague of the 21st century has yet to undermine the Greeks and their world famous hospitality. Filoxenia is alive and well here, I hear it in every Kalimera” chanted back at me in the mornings. What’s most amazing about the current situation is how everyone here followed their leaders without complaint. Cretans, world famous for being independent, toed the line like you cannot believe when the chips were down.
One can only imagine what business owners are feeling. And what about Greece’s Prime Minister? Officials must be overwhelmed with phone calls and so forth. I guess adversity has its lessons. The main one being that it breeds strength and resilience. One thing is for certain, everybody is going to have to learn to be more flexible and forward-thinking. COVID-19 changed everything, but that does not have to mean we’re in for all-bad future. Maybe this pandemic will reset our thinking on things like sustainability, safety, and the way we do business.
I certainly hope so. As for Dimitris Markakis and all our other entrepreneur friends, it looks like they are well placed to see what is “next”. Greece has a golden opportunity here, to become the world’s safest destination, and in so doing, the world’s most coveted trip.