Greece’s drive to promote tourism using the status quo, it is not going to work. Everything we are studying, researching, and listening to from the tourism ministry and the rest of the current administration is about going back and appearing to go forward. As if politics and policy have been welded to economics and business, Greece is headed for touristic limbo in 2021 unless something changed fast. Here are my thoughts.
I was reading an article from Greece Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis at ANA (in Greek) this morning. In the report, Theoharis regurgitates the need for Greece to retrain affected tourism workers, the strategies of rebooting air traffic lanes, and potential domestic tourism, along with prospective marketing campaigns to keep people interested in Greece. But nowhere in the story is there a mention of the paradigm opportunity. What I mean is, high value and specialty tourism suites to the new normal are not even addressed. Ever.
There are probably a hundred reasons why Greek politicians and business people never seem to grasp the obvious. But I expect that huge businesses like TUI, Fraport, Chinese interests, and so forth, play a huge role in stifling creative thinking. My status quo insinuation in the intro is there for a purpose, and the purpose is to tell you that these politicians have no intention of changing anything about visiting Greece. No retail economic windfall will ensue, independent travel and hospitality concerns will not see a bonanza, and the islands of Greece will probably sink into the depths of the Aegean under the weight of budget travelers.
We originally supported the Athens pitch to reopen tourism in the wake of a pandemic. With fingers and toes crossed, many of us applauded the early efforts by the Mitsotalis administration in pushing COVID down. My media influence leaned toward supporting the tourism ministry’s Greece 2020 touristic campaigns. But this was as much out of desperation for friends in business here in Greece, as it was wishful thinking that the world could somehow reset. At the end of the day, however, the only real beneficiaries have been the all-inclusive resorts on the beaches of Crete and other islands. And TUI owns or leverages almost all of those. Let’s just get down to it.
The big boys managed to stay afloat. That’s what Greece’s tourism ministry and the overall political agenda has been. And perhaps, this is not an evil thing. It is, however, a stupid thing if we are going to consider true sustainability, both economically and ideologically. For one thing is certain, the status quo of mass budget class tourism is out of the question now. In fact, Santorini, Crete, and many other Greek destinations were being destroyed physically and economically by the weight of unsustainable tourism for years before COVID-19. The Greek decisionmakers know this, but they’ve been handcuffed by the outside investment interests (Fraport, TUI, and Greek business interests.
Most of the economic lingo being used by Greek officials refer to ideas revolving around marketing and sales of services and products where the outside investor takes home most of the economic win. Even the possibility of true “greenfield projects,” seems to be largely ignored by the tourism/hospitality crowd. The lingo is present in Ernst & Young reports, but no industry of real products emerge from Greece. Status quo, doing business the way Greece has always done business, this is the rhetoric. The problem may be the age-old one of putting bean counters in charge of anything. These economic geniuses use terms like “human resources” and “quality of life” as investment jargon. And let’s face it, when my friend’s coffee shop does not emit a profit for a Frankfurt banker, his business is really in peril. I know you may think me cynical, but I am joined by every Greek I talk to. A famous businessman here on Crete put the situation to me like this just the other day.
“Phil, either we take up our guns and head to the capital in a revolution. Or, we just shut up and do the best we can with the sellouts we get as leaders.”
And the Greeks have had too many revolutions, wars, and political upheavals. They are tired, stressed, and making good use of their legendary resilience. Right now most Greeks are convinced, that when an official opens their mouth, nothing but bullshit comes out. And who can blame the people?
In 2019 total FDI in Greece stock exceeded $40 billion US. The top foreign investors were Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and Italy. From a historical standpoint, the country may as well have become a German colony before and after World War II. And, of course, the industries where this investment is headed are those that emit the most net profit for the outsiders. Job creation and economic benefits to the Greeks are at a minimum. In 2017, inward investment in Greece supported just 5% of private-sector jobs, according to the OECD (PDF).
I’ve no space here to get into value-added exports Greece should be manufacturing, but the point of outsiders taking the cream off the top should be noted here. And Greek officials are a big part of the problem. Just look at Fraport’s loss of net loss of €231.4 million for the first half of 2020, and factor in government actions and airports where the German company manages, and it’s not hard to understand the 2020 tourism reboot. Forget TUI, for the moment, and understand how corporate lobbying from even bigger interests works. And as we all know, corporations are not fleet of foot, they don’t change easily, and innovation is not in their DNA.
Finally, as I type this a story about Greece’s tourism minister pledging still more publicity for the Halkidiki, defines everything I am saying about the obtuseness of these officials and the system. Ostensibly, Theoharis is rewarding this part of Greece for tight measures instituted there in response to the coronavirus. He pledged that Halkidiki would get PR and marketing to exceed the Greek National Tourism Organization’s (GNTO) campaigns for all of Greece next year. And while I am not sure how Crete and other regions will feel about the selectiveness there, I wonder what manner of COVID catastrophe might come to Halkidiki with a flood of travelers into the unknown. As for Halkidiki, just last month Halkidiki Regional Governor Ioannis Giorgos said:
“The high coronavirus rates in the overall region of Northern Greece are a result of unprecedented circumstances in neighboring countries.”
This statement upon requesting funding and support from Athens ran contrary to Theoharis’ and the government’s assertions that the COVID-19 upspike is due to local people. And this is the point. These officials are wandering in the unknown just like the rest of us, but acting as if they have special superpowers. But Theoharis’ statements reflect the real powers being exerted. He once again defended the government’s decision to open to tourism this year despite Covid-19, by using a 30 percent revenue gain versus a zero gain to justify the dice roll. For me, the insinuation is political suicide. And I am sure millions of others feel the same. The 30 percent, by the way, did not filter down to SMEs and the Greek people. The 30 percent rescued went in large part to international entities and the big fish of Greece travel and hospitality. This can be proven, by the way.
I only wish I had the time and the ability to write a more scathing report on this tragedy unfolding. This administration had a caveat, almost carte blanche, to do whatever was necessary to put Greece at the top of the crisis management heap. For a while, Mitsotakis and his ministers were beyond par in doing this. And then, clearly, something happened. Now we are in a total redux mode as if the whole of Greece were some soulless corporation. Going back is not sustainable. This is the long and short of all these discussions.