The Greek Situation – seen through the eyes of an Athens resident (and archaeologist)

Guest blog by Heinrich Hall, a core tour leader for our client Peter Sommer Travels and resident of Athens, about the current Greek situation.

Regarding the practicalities of travel in 2012, travellers should be encouraged to come to Greece if they are so inclined – the fact that the country’s situation may deter visitors is downright tragic, as their business is needed and heartily welcome, and as the ongoing problems are not likely to substantially affect most visitors’ experience.

 

For the time being, suffice it to say that (a) the media-visible rioting etc. is limited mostly to Athens and would not necessarily even impede a visit here, (b) the quality of the product available and the hospitality of the Greeks are not affected, and (c) a change of currency, were it to occur, would probably be to the visitor’s advantage. The main aspect that could impinge on travellers is the potential of strikes, which are least relevant to package travel.  (Travel PR note:  because, of course, tour operators look after their clients in such instances as strikes, and also cover all costs of so doing.)

It is true that tourism has a key role in Greece’s economy and should likewise occupy a key role in its future development. There can also be little doubt that Greece will remain a major destination. The current discussion, however, is somewhat flawed, as it concentrates entirely on basic pricing competitiveness, and therefore by implication on cheap mass tourism options, especially in summer. This reduces the consideration to straightforward price comparisons with Turkey, Bulgaria or Tunisia (and such), which are only of partial relevance.

While that segment is obviously one that will stay an important part of the Greek market, it is not the whole story. In reality, the Greek tourism product has a lot more to offer in all relevant regards, such as quality, range of destinations, range of seasons, style of travel, unique experience and so on. It may be mostly a problem of Greek marketing, in conjunction with the cliché-ridden expectations abroad, that this variety and some of the most rewarding aspects of Greece as a travel destination have not received the attention and achieved the reputation they deserve. In this regard, Greece is still a connoisseur’s playground. 

Sunset at The Portara on Naxos

This is what Greece needs to further develop and create awareness for: a highly varied and customisable experience of top quality that should be attractive to the type of traveller who books more upmarket organised products (such as the land tours and cruises I conduct with Peter Sommer Travels).  This is in addition to independent or semi-independent ones, ranging from the traditional cultural/archaeological activities, via walking, hiking and even skiing etc., to more specific offers, such as culinary travel, bird-watching, dancing holidays and so on. 

(Travel PR note: some 50 AITO specialists offer a huge variety of holidays to Greece, tailor-made or off-the-shelf, ranging from sailing around the islands to staying in rustic-chic villas with pool, from walking amidst the spring flowers to staying in wonderful Greek manor house hotels, from wine and food based trips to a tour of the monasteries perched atop cliffs in Meteora.   There’s literally something for everyone, be they fans of Mamma Mia, who want to follow in the footsteps of Meryl Streep in the Pelion, to Byzantine  fans keen to visit 13th century Mystras in the Peloponnese.)

The immense and often spectacular beauty of most of the country, from its wooded mainland north to its picturesque islands, its long experience in accommodating all kinds of travellers, the continuing existence of authentic traditions and the wealth in highly memorable and significant sites (ranging from prehistoric monuments, the collections of Classical remains including at a host of newly renovated museums, to Byzantine monasteries, traditional villages and such, as well as less-known attractions, such as Ottoman architecture, Art Deco architecture in cities and mementos of Greece’s turbulent 20thcentury history) are all key parts of a true Greek experience that should attract any discerning traveller.

Anafi's temple-monastery

The country’s cuisine is much underestimated, not least due to the mediocre fare available at some of the tourist hotspots. In reality, it is a lot more varied and incorporates strands from Anatolia and beyond, the Balkans, the West and even the ancient tradition. A well-informed approach to travel in Greece should make this one of the central avenues to experience the country and its regions. The massive improvement in the quality of Greek wines over the last generation, often based on rare local grape varieties, adds another point of fascination, as does a multitude of other traditional quality products from Koan wine-soaked cheese via the Northwest’s caviar-like avgotaracho to the sweet almond-milk of Crete… 

Known virtually only to Greek travellers in their own country, the last decade has seen the sensitive renovation and restoration of countless local townhouses, farmhouses, village cottages and so on across Greece. These establishments offer not five-star luxury, but authentic local style and very personal service, often linked with good access to, and information about, the given region’s cultural or natural resources – the royal road to a truly intensive experience.

This depth of cultural and physical experience is, in its own way, unique to Greece and should be core to its strategies.

The challenge for Greece, unattainable in 12 months or even a few years, is to develop awareness of this type of “real” Greek experience – a way of travelling that does not content itself with skimming the surface but takes the visitor on a true voyage of discovery - among the target audiences in Europe, North America and beyond (while responsibly developing the mass tourist segment as well, but probably not aiming for the cheapest varieties thereof).

The opportunity for the prospective traveller is (apart from getting a bargain deal near some beach) to discover and enjoy a richly rewarding and highly memorable experience, at prices that compare well with those in countries where similarly “deep” experiences are available.

Heinrich, an archaeologist, has been based in Athens for nearly a decade and has travelled widely in Greece. He is also co-editor of the most recent Blue Guide to the Greek Islands.  A version of this blog can also be found on AITO-member Peter Sommer Travels’ blog here.

Travel PR comment:  And so say all of us.  We encourage everyone who hasn’t yet made their holiday plans for this year, whether in spring, summer or autumn, to visit Greece in 2012, to offer this beautiful country our support and to enjoy the warmest of welcomes and all the other joys so well described above by Heinrich Hall.

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