(This post is part of Peter Sommer Travels' company history. It was our first long format post, and as it was topical at the time, making a point the official Greek tourism channels were initially slow to follow, it gained thousands of Facebook likes and hundreds of shares within a few days - unfortunately, those did not survive the various transition and updates our blog has undergone since. Heinrich is still very proud of this text.)
Is it a good idea to visit Greece in 2012? My answer is a resounding yes - let me tell you why.
Recently, I have been asked to respond to a question from Nick Easen, a columnist at BBC Travel, in regard to the realties of travelling to Greece in the present situation. This is my reply.
Of course, Greece has been in the news all too much recently, and for unpleasant reasons. The country is undergoing a severe economic crisis, many of its inhabitants are experiencing what one might euphemistically call "difficult times", and things are unlikely to improve very quickly. Thus, it is hardly a surprise to find various discussions, on the internet and elsewhere, about the question whether this is a good time to visit the country. The British Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the US embassy in Athens have issued some (very moderate) warnings, adding to such worries.
As I live in Greece and am involved in tourism, I have lately been approached from various quarters asking what my views on travel in Greece in 2012 are, as well as - more broadly - what challenges the country faces in regard to tourism, a key sector of its economy, and what opportunities there might be for the visitor at this time. It was in reply to one such request, as mentioned above, that I initially wrote the following paragraphs.
I should probably introduce myself before continuing: I am one of Peter Sommer Travels' permanent staff, working as an organiser and tour expert on various tours in Greece and Turkey. I am an active archaeologist, have been based in Athens for about ten years, and have travelled very widely in Greece, mainland and islands, for over 30 years. I am also co-editor of the most recent Blue Guide to the Greek Islands.
My own take on the topic is a fairly complex one, and not just concerned with the practicalities of travelling in the present situation. But let me begin by addressing that issue specifically.
Travel in Greece in 2012
At this time of need, travellers should be encouraged to come to Greece if they are so inclined - the fact that the country's economic crisis may deter visitors is downright tragic, as their business is needed and heartily welcome, and as the on-going problems are not likely to substantially affect most visitors' experience, which many potential travellers appear to realise already. It should be noted that:
A) the most undesirable aspect of the situation, namely the riots, which have an unfortunate tendency to dominate reports in the imagery-driven international media, are the exception and not the norm. The vast majority of demonstrations remains perfectly peaceful. In any case, even the demonstrations are limited mostly to Athens and the other major cities, and usually to specific parts thereof. These events would not necessarily impede a visit even to Athens; and of course, most rural areas, smaller towns and islands are essentially unaffected. London saw heavy riots in 2011, and cities like Berlin or Paris experience such events regularly - should that deter us from visiting them, or cause us to avoid other parts of Britain, Germany or France?
B) the quality of the available product and travel experience remains unchanged, as does the legendary hospitality of the Greeks - if anything, you can expect to be made even more welcome than usually.
C) A change of currency, were it to really occur (I personally do not hope so), would probably be to the foreign visitor's direct advantage.
D) The main aspect that could impinge on most travellers this year is the potential of strikes, leading to delays, temporary suspension of certain services and occasional closures of sites or attractions. Such actions, however, usually avoid the main travel season. In any case, these problems are quite unlikely to affect package travel, while the more independent voyager can normally avoid them by maintaining a degree of flexibility that is part and parcel of independent travel.
So much for the current situation. Let us have a look at the broader outlook, how might or should tourism in Greece develop, and what should the traveller expect and look for?
It is true that tourism has a key role in Greece's economy (constituting just under 20% of GDP) and will likewise occupy a key role in its future development. There can also be little doubt that Greece will remain a major destination (it currently receives nearly 20 million visitors per year) . 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 so on), 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 travel product has a lot more to offer in all relevant regards, including quality, range of destinations, range of seasons, style of travel, unique experiences 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.
An immense range of unique experiences
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 gulet cruises I conduct with Peter Sommer Travels), as well as to the independent or semi-independent one, ranging from the traditional cultural/archaeological activities, via walking, hiking, sailing (even skiing) etc., to more specific offers, such as culinary travel, bird-watching, dancing holidays, religious holidays and so on. The wide range of things to do and see, along with the fact that Greeks are generally very child-friendly, also makes the country an ideal destination for family holidays with youngsters of any age.
The discerning traveller should be highly attracted by the key aspects of a true Greek experience. The first and most significant of those is the immense and often spectacular natural beauty of most of the country, from its wooded mainland north to its picturesque islands, from snow-capped peaks to idyllic beaches, from fertile plains and hills to primeval wilderness. Likewise, Greece's long experience in accommodating all kinds of travellers in all kinds of settings, styles and seasons, should be highlighted. Other key features include the continuing existence of authentic traditions, and - most importantly - the immense wealth of highly memorable and significant sites (ranging from prehistoric monuments, the remains of Classical antiquity everywhere - including a host of newly renovated state-of-the-art museums - to Byzantine monasteries, medieval castles, traditional villages and so on, but also including less well-known attractions, e.g. fine Ottoman buildings, Art Deco architecture in some of the cities, mementos of Greece's turbulent 20th century history etc). This rich mixture of widely varied attractions is the real essence of Greece and has too long been neglected in favour of "simpler" options.
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 highly varied and incorporates strands from Anatolia and beyond, the Balkans, the West, and even the ancient tradition, relying on the use of fresh and often very local ingredients . 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 local quality products beyond the well-known olive oil and feta range, from Koan wine-soaked cheese, via the west's caviar-like Avgotaracho to the sweet soumada or almond-milk of Crete.
Hidden in plain sight
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 all of Greece. These establishments offer not 5-star luxury, but authentic local style and very personal service, often linked with good access to and information on the given region's cultural or natural resources - the royal road to a truly intensive and rare experience. In recent years, the domestic market has sufficed to sustain these developments, but the time has now come to let others in on those secrets - and for us to discover them!
This depth of cultural and physical experience is, in its own way, unique to Greece and should be a core aspect of its strategies for further development. While Greece will probably also have to aim to responsibly develop its mass tourism segment (although it should avoid aiming for the cheapest varieties thereof), and while the heavy-duty luxury sector is able to look after itself, the focus and incentive should strongly favour such a quality approach.
Challenges and opportunities
The challenge for Greece, not attainable rapidly, but gradually by working with the country's true and abundant assets, is to develop awareness of this type of "real" Greek experience, among the target audiences in Europe, North America and beyond. Greece should promote a manner of travelling that does not content itself with skimming the surface but takes the visitor on a true voyage of discovery. The potential is immense and full of promise - not least in remote areas where few other economic opportunities exist, but where the modern traveller can find a sense of tranquillity and beauty, of history and tradition, of authenticity and hospitality, of nature and of culture, like nowhere else in the western world.
The opportunity for the prospective traveller is by no means limited to getting a bargain deal near some beach. The real boon lies in discovering and enjoying a richly rewarding and highly memorable experience (at prices that compare well with those in countries where similarly "deep" experiences are available) - and moreover, an experience that is truly unique and can only be had in Greece, or more specifically its individual regions.
There are many famous starting points to discovering that real Greece. The timeless monuments of Athens, an ancient supercity and one of the spiritual homes of western civilisation are an obvious one, as are the grandiose Roman and Byzantine structures of Thessaloniki, the magnificent vista of Santorini's volcanic caldera, the beautiful medieval city of Rhodes, the Bronze Age citadel at Mycenae, the mountain villages of Crete or the countless pristine beaches along the country's 14000km (8700mi.) coastline.
But that's only where you might start - imagine where it might take you next! Maybe you'll find yourself tasting freshly fished lobster on the tiny Fourni islands, wandering the winding streets of lake-girt Kastoria in search of its many painted churches, sipping coffee in the Venetian squares of Nafplio or Chania, enjoying a view of half the Aegean from the window of an 18th century mansion on the Pelion peninsula or spending a romantic night in the enchanted medieval town of Monemvasia, trying the succulent roast goat of Crete, exploring the mysterious dragon-houses on the rugged peaks of Euboea, admiring the treasures of Alexander the Great's family at Vergina, gazing over the Ionian islands from the perfectly preserved ancient city of Kassope, paying a visit to the 2600-year old sleeping giants of Naxos, sampling that island's spicy cheeses or the vibrant red wines of Naoussa, or getting lost in the labyrinthine villages of Chios...
So, where would it take you? There's only one way to find out: Come to Greece! Tour the country, embarking on your own voyage of exploration and discovery - at your own pace, in your own style and following your own impulses or interests!
By the way, two wonderful ways to begin your personal exploration of this beautiful and ancient land are Peter Sommer Travels' escorted Greece tours: our land tour In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: From Boy to King, perhaps one of the most comprehensive experiences of mainland Greece, and our new Greek Islands Cruise, an epic voyage from the Dodecanese to the Cyclades.
This has been a long post and we thank you for reading it. If you want more, here's a little gallery of what you might find in Greece - have a look and enjoy, and if you decide to explore for yourself, feel free to show us what you found.