“This is the Greece I love” – Interview with Elena Kountoura, Tourism Minister of Greece

In a Summer Interview with TUI Online Media the Minister talks about the tourism development in Greece, the variety of the coastline and its islands, the culture and cuisine – … and Greece as a year-round and skiing destination.

Elena Kountoura

Dear Minister, how do you welcome tourists in Greece?

Elena Kountoura: We have a very personal welcome for every visitor. We invite them to a journey of authentic highly- personalized experiences and we encourage them to expose themselves to the many choices that we offer and that we can spoil them with. 

Greece is the land of beauty, culture and light: a light of life, good spirits and joy derived from the warmness of the sun, our heart-felt hospitality and the liveliness of the Greek people who will engage to make you feel like home and have a truly wonderful experience, while you explore the treasures of our charming destinations. 

What is the special charm of Greece?

Elena Kountoura: Greece is the largest and most diverse complex of Islands in the Mediterranean, with about 16.000 km of coastline, one of the longest in the world, safe crystal clear blue waters, its majestic mainland and a mild and pleasant climate that makes trips ideal throughout the year. The exquisite landscape, rich history and culture are the timeless elements which we maintain with the utmost respect in terms of sustainable tourism, and which we enhance as we develop new tourism products of special interest and new Greek destinations.

Global media and the latest international travel surveys feature Greece among the most preferred European and global destinations for summer holidays, but also for luxury tourism, cruises and yachting, city-breaks, cultural and adventure trips, spas and wellness, weddings and honeymoons. We have a strong brand-name in the Mediterranean and right now we are a very attractive European destination in terms of authenticity and uniqueness, high-end accommodation and services, value for money, the wide-array of travel choices we offer and the sense of safety, friendliness and hospitality our visitors experience. All these factors combined, make Greece a top choice.

What are your favorite spots, beaches and festivals in Greece?

Elena Kountoura: I would suggest to every visitor who chooses one or more destinations in my country to visit monuments of world heritage and culture, historical religious and spiritual sites and also not miss the chance to explore fabulous beaches if they love swimming and sailing and the many incredible opportunities for sports and recreation in rivers and lakes across the country. For those who love nature, we offer a dense network of hiking trails in islands and mountain destinations. The Olympus Festival offers unique experiences to mountain-climbers, but also many islands combine a unique experience for rock-climbing with a wonderful sea view.

And at the same time, our visitors should not miss the chance to attend festivals and local celebrations in nearby destinations that take place at the time. Our museums, art galleries and major cultural events such as the Athens Epidaurus Festival that lasts three months in the summertime, attract visitors from around the world. Daily, across Greece, festivals, local festivities, fairs and village feasts take place in open-air theatres, castles and squares, and include art performances, music, dances, local customs, incredible food and local tastes, that highlight the local culture and identity, and bring people together to celebrate life.

This is the Greece I love.

What is your personal hint to the foreign visitors in Greece? What should nobody miss when visiting your country?

Elena Kountoura: Each destination within Greece has its own, very distinct identity and the more one travels the more there is to discover and experience. Even in a short period of time, one gets to combine different and various experiences.

There are few places in the world where you have the chance to ski on the mountain and within 20 minutes of drive be able to swim at a breath-taking beach or enjoy a meal by the seaside. Due to our islands’ close proximity with one another in both the Aegean and the Ionian Sea and the frequent interconnection with the mainland by sea and air our visitors can visit multiple destinations in just one trip. Yachting is ideal for those who wish to explore uninhabited islands and secluded beaches accessible only by sea, while for those who prefer recreational diving, we are developing a network of underwater archeological parks which are close to popular islands and coastline destinations.

Travelling around Greece is a never-ending experience, and this is why many of our visitors return more than once to visit the same one or many more places.

How you say “Enjoy your meal!” in Greek and what local dishes would you personally offer to a friend and visitor?

Elena Kountoura: The culinary routes across the country have set the path for an extraordinary lifetime journey, where one becomes familiar with the culture, entwines with the locals and gains “highly personalized” experiences. The Greek gastronomy is strongly embedded in our history and culture, distinct in taste and pure in its essence, with our locally-grown fresh products and it’s also a daily habit that promotes healthy lifestyle, wellness and longevity.

The unique Greek virgin olive oil, pure honey, a great variety of herbs and spices, such as oregano and thyme selected in the mainland and the islands by the seaside, the very distinctive red saffron and fava, the tasteful capers and feta cheese in our Greek salad, fresh local produce and delicious fish, are fundamental and plentiful in our culinary dishes that are combined with exceptional varieties of Greek wines.

Apart from the authentic recipes that one will taste in taverns in traditional villages, one can experience gourmet dishes of haute cuisine by highly-skilled chefs in fancy restaurants in all Greek destinations that blend traditional with modern elements and combine simplicity with innovation. I would recommend the Greek breakfast as an ideal way to start off the day.

“Kali orexi” would be the equivalent of wishing to our guests to have a good appetite and enjoy their meal. In the Greek culture, food is about engaging with the land and the environment, and even more about human interaction, communication and personal engagement: coming together around a table and sharing food, thoughts, feelings and experiences. Our food is healthy and tasteful at the same time, made from home-grown products and a strong part of our hospitality. This is a unique asset of what Greece offers as a travel destination.

When is the nicest time in a year to visit Greece?

Elena Kountoura: Greece is an established sea and sun destination mostly visited in the months between April and November. What most visitors do not know, and this is part of our new tourism policy and our promotional plan abroad, is that many destinations are ideal to visit 12 months a year, and each period have to offer different experiences. Greece has more than 700 natural thermal springs, and modern spa resorts and wellness centers that operate all year round. Also, many summer destinations began to offer 12 month tourism, with hotels and businesses open during the winter and sea and air connections throughout the year encouraging visitors to spend for example Christmas holidays in a Greek island.

We also offer winter tourism in Greece, in our numerous ski centers and mainland destinations which are very popular family and lifestyle getaways for Greeks in the wintertime, and which we want to be known as an attractive choice for vacation to our potential visitors from abroad. Athens with its Riviera and Salonica, but also major port-cities are ideal city breaks all year round, combining culture, site-seeing in archeological sites and world heritage monuments , shopping, immense choices in great food and entertainment 24/7, and the famous night life.

How important is tourism in Greece?

Elena Kountoura: Tourism is a vital sector for the country’s overall economic and social growth and regional development. It accounts for about 20 per cent of the GDP and about one fifth of the total employment, supporting 1 million jobs that are directly or indirectly linked to all tourism activity. The Greek tourism sector maintained strong performance in all recent years, despite the economic difficulties the country faced. In 2015, we reached an all-time record with over 26 million international arrivals and more than 14.1 billion euro revenues, an increase of about 7 per cent compared to the 5 per cent overall growth of the international tourism. Now, that we have set the path for our national economy to return to growth, following the recent successful agreement between our government and our creditors, we expect tourism will have a key-role.

It is our government’s priority to invest in tourism. We offer high-end service in 5- star hotels, luxury resorts, integrated tourism resorts, boutique hotels, but also in quality accommodation by family-owned and family-operated businesses, and this personal element is characteristic of the relations our tourism sector builds with our visitors. Therefore we support through funding programs projects for the upgrade and modernization of small and medium businesses in the tourism sector, as well as the creation of new businesses, aiming to create new sources of income and to boost regional development and activity even in the most remote areas of the mainland and the islands. At the same time, though our new development and investment framework, we encourage large scale and strategic investments from international funds and foreign investors that show increased interest to invest in the Greek tourism sector and real estate, and are already exploring concrete opportunities.

More than 26 million people visited Greece last year, which is an all-time record for the country. What is the Greek tourism Minister doing to further increase tourism figures in the long term?

Elena Kountoura: We offer tourism 365 days a year and our plan focuses on promoting Greece as a year-round destination. Also, we are currently developing new tourism themed products, to open up new Greek destinations in the islands and the mainland and at the same time we extend our official tourism season, to attract more visitors who want to explore all aspects of Greece year-round. This strategic planning includes efforts to spread additional tourist flows throughout the year, and also gives the option to our visitors to spend their summer vacation in our destinations in early spring-time and up to October and November and still enjoy ideal weather conditions. We also open new markets such as the Middle East, Russia, China and Korea and establish new direct flights and increase our air connection to our destinations from many large cities around the world.

Encouraging and forwarding new investments geared towards luxury vacation, high-end accommodation and special tourism infrastructure projects, is part of our strategy to empower and enrich our tourism product. We have many great marinas, ideal for yachting and cruising, and special infrastructure such as golf, spas, diving parks, and luxury overall amenities. Also, in collaboration with the 13 Regions of Greece, the local stakeholders and the private sector, we promote the Greek tourism product by using digital technology and all means of communication to our key-markets by communicating the unique experiences our destinations offer individually and by highlighting with multilevel campaigns the attractive, yet lesser known, aspects of Greece.

Thousands of refugees were crossing the Mediterranean Sea the last couple of months. Did it affect tourism in Greece?

Elena Kountoura: The Ministry of Tourism developed a very effective strategy to shield its tourism before the tourism season, therefore all infrastructure that had been set up to receive refugees was in a small number of islands, temporary and absolutely controlled, invisible and far away from the tourist areas. The Greek government made a huge effort to manage the increased flows of refugees towards Europe, by having given priority to human rights and offering hospitality and a shelter to people in great need and in their most difficult time. The islanders showed the most humane face of Europe, and sent a strong message of peace and solidarity across the world.

The refugee flows through the Aegean have now dropped down to almost zero. Our islands are stunning and absolutely ready to receive and satisfy even the most demanding visitor.

What should a visitor in Greece do that would make the local people smile? And what would the Greeks do, to make visitors smile?

Elena Kountoura: Smile is embedded in our DNA. The first image our visitor’s see is a friendly and happy face and feels the smile that comes out very genuinely and naturally from our heart. Whether visitors find themselves in a small island or in the busy downtown center of a large city, they will notice how friendly Greeks are and open to interaction, both by the professionals involved the tourism sector and in all tourism-related services they enjoy, but also by the locals they encounter.

Vacation is all about making the visitor smile, and that is a genuine approach that TUI knows very well as a leading tour operator and a trend-maker in the global tourism market.

The warm hospitality that the Greek people offer generously and that the visitors receive while mingling with the locals highlights the aspect of Greece’s identity as a “home away from home”.