Elena Kountoura, Minister of Tourism for Greece // © 2017 Elena Kountoura
Feature image (above): Greece is expected to welcome 30 million visitors in 2017. // © 2017 Creative Commons user danelu
In January 2015, when Elena Kountoura first took office as the new Minister of Tourism for Greece, the already popular destination was on the cusp of a record-breaking tourism boom.
That year, Greece — which spans 6,000 islands and is home to 10.5 million residents — saw a record 26 million international arrivals, a number that grew to 28 million in 2016. And now, after almost three years in office, Kountoura says she’s confident that 2017 will top both years in revenues and arrivals, with an estimated 30 million visitors expected to land on the nation’s shores via air, car or one of the country’s 20 cruise ports.
We sat down with Kountoura at the 2017 Global Convention for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) to learn more about the country’s tourism strategy, what travel advisors need to know about visiting the region and what the future holds for the destination.
In 2015, Greece’s tourism portfolio received an overhaul. Can you tell me about the ministry’s updated policy?
Our national policy is very important because we want to make sure that we promote Greece in the right way and with the right actions, with targeted initiatives in different markets and promotions in various types of media. In January 2015, we built this new tourism policy based on five pillars: We wanted to extend the summer travel season; promote new Greek destinations; create tourism-based thematic products that would go through all the 13 regions in Greece’s islands and the mainland; open up new, big markets such as China, India and the Middle East while reinforcing the U.S., Canada and Europe; and, finally, we wanted to attract investments.
In the three years since the overhaul, what have been the results?
According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the average rate of growth in Greece tourism is 7 percent, where the global rate is 3-4 percent. The UNWTO has congratulated us, because Greece’s national tourism policy is a role model and an example of growth and high performance. During the past three years, when all these [global events] are happening all around us, we have managed to overcome and keep our destination beautiful and safe — and to promote it as well. And we’ve also achieved double-digit growth from the U.S. in the past three years.
Part of your strategy to reach these U.S. travelers also includes increased access to the country. What are you doing to make it easier for tourists to come to Greece?
We’ve negotiated with the airlines to bring direct service to the country. In 2015, there was only one airline — Delta — that was doing a direct flight from the U.S. If you wanted to come to Greece, you had to come through Germany, England, France, etc. In 2016, it grew to three airlines — American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines — which was great. And this year, we’ve started daily direct flights with Emirates that fly from Newark Liberty International Airport in New York.
For Greece, this was very important and a big success. Now, tourists can enjoy Greece 365 days of the year with a daily direct flight. We’re very happy for this achievement, and we hope to have more daily flights in the future.
How are you addressing concerns of safety and security in Greece?
The truth is, there are a lot of problems all over the world. You might see unpleasant situations anywhere. But, when you decide on your vacation, you want to feel safe and secure and without negative thoughts. Greece is one of the safest countries ever, because we have strong, built-up security. At the same time, we are very friendly, warmhearted and hospitable.
How are you working with travel advisors and the media to educate them on Greece’s offerings?
We are making an effort to bring travel agents, journalists and bloggers to Greece. We also educate them through webinars, because we want selling Greece to be a top priority for them. The Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events industry is also very important to us. We will also be the host of the ASTA Destination Expo in Athens in April 2018.
I want travel agents to come to my beautiful country. We are very proud of it, and agents will have the opportunity to explore different regions of Greece in small groups so they can see everything.
What do you recommend travelers to Greece see and do?
Greece is a country in Europe that spoils travelers with a lot of different choices. Clients can enjoy a lot of different experiences no matter where they’re coming from, when they’re coming or what they’re looking for. And you can enjoy Greece 365 days of the year. We are very strong culturally and historically, with our philosophy, with our medicine, sports, entertainment, gastronomy and more. It’s a country with so many choices to enjoy it.