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Greece to welcome huge wave of tourists May 30, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Tourism.

Greece is bracing for an unprecedented influx of visitors this summer in a boom that is cheering the tourism industry but causing concern among environmentalists, who warn that overbuilding along the country’s pristine island seafronts would mar their beauty and create environmental risks. The International Herald Tribune reports.

The number of tourist arrivals this year is expected to increase by 7 percent to 16 million visitors, according to the Institute for Tourism Research and Predictions. Santorini, which is one of hundreds of Aegean islands, expects a million visitors, 20 percent more than last year, despite the sinking of a cruise ship off its coast in early April.

At least a third of arrivals will come from Britain and Germany, Greece’s most loyal markets. But the biggest increases are expected from the United States and Russia, with arrivals set to rise by 50 percent and 20 percent respectively, bringing in about 1.7 million tourists. A marked increase is also expected from residents of new European Union member states in the Balkans.

“Greece is this year not just a popular destination but a preferred one, which is a big difference” said Tourism Minister Fani Palli-Petralia. Tourism is huge in Greece, accounting for one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product and one in five jobs. Last year, tourism registered revenue of €11 billion, or $14.8 billion, a record that is expected to be broken this year despite fierce competition from Mediterranean rivals.

But memories of a tourism slump that began after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and continued up to the 2004 Athens Olympics have not faded; so the government has taken steps to prevent a repeat. A drive is under way to extend the traditional May-October season and bolster the country’s tourism infrastructure.

Tens of millions of euros have been invested in promotion to add religious tourism, spas, golf, agrotourism, mountaineering, and yachting to Greece’s traditional attractions of sun-drenched islands and ancient monuments. This year’s advertising campaign, “Explore your senses” aims to attract more tourists during the low season, particularly wealthy visitors with specialist interests.

The local authorities have been cooperating with officials of the Greek Orthodox Church to attract residents of neighboring Christian countries like Italy and the countries of the former Soviet Union to sites of religious significance. An effort to promote the wanderings of Saint Paul, from the island of Samothrace in the north to Corinth in the south, has attracted much interest.

Alternative forms of tourism like agrotourism are gaining in popularity, too, with local the authorities in northern and central Greece promoting workshops that offer first-hand experience of the local culture and gastronomy while supporting the agricultural economy. The initiative has flourished, largely because of EU subsidies that also promote the renovation and construction of traditional village settlements.

Lesser known but geographically spectacular parts of Greece are also being promoted to attract visitors interested in combining mountaineering, rafting, or diving with a fresh insight into the country’s natural charms.

“Tourists are increasingly seeking specialized vacations,” said Yiannis Machairidis, the Prefect of the Dodecanese islands, which include Rhodes. “If we fail to grasp this, we will struggle to survive in this market.”

Another initiative, aimed at attracting wealthier tourists all year, has provoked debate. The government’s “land zoning” plan foresees the creation of luxury tourism complexes, including holiday homes for long-term lease or sale as well as golf courses and spas. Two such complexes, on Crete and in the western Peloponnese, are already in the works.

The Environment and Public Works Minister, Giorgos Souflias, who presented the plan this month, envisions “one million Europeans interested in acquiring a second residence in Greece.” But there has been a mixed reception for the plan, which offers incentives for construction in less developed areas and allows building up to 50 meters, or 165 feet, from the coastline, in areas protected by the EU program Natura and on uninhabited islets.

Stavros Andreadis, President of the Association of Greek Tourist Enterprises, says the plan will be “a catalyst for tourism development” if it is followed by legislative action to curb bureaucratic hurdles that have discouraged investors.

The Technical Chamber of Greece, an association of civil engineers, has condemned the plan, and environmental and conservation groups have warned against coastal “concretization” that has marred the Spanish coast. They also object to the creation of water-guzzling golf courses when much of Greece is on red alert for drought this summer.

“The authorities are desperate to sell off prime pieces of coastal land for hotels,” said Nikos Charalambides, Executive Director of Greenpeace Greece. “This might bring in short-term financial gains, but in the long-term it will downgrade these areas, as we have seen in Spain.”

But Palli-Petralia, the Tourism Minister, dismisses such fears. “We are not going to turn Greece into Spain,” she said at a news conference this month. “The destruction of our environment will finish us off as a tourist destination.”

Greece is also seeking to increase year-round tourism by promoting Athens, Thessaloniki, and other major locations as “city break” destinations. The Athens campaign has coincided with hotel and Museum renovations and a widespread revamping of the city’s historic center. The authorities are promoting an enriched cultural program, including the Athens Festival with open-air operas in ancient theaters. Seminars in good manners are being held for the capital’s notoriously surly taxi drivers.

“Athens is on its way to becoming a leading European destination for both tourists and business travelers,” said Panagiotis Arkoumaneas, General Manager of the Athens Tourism and Economic Development Agency, the capital’s official tourist body.

The agency observed a 20 percent increase in tourists visiting Athens in 2006, with an 8 percent rise in the first quarter of this year. Last week, when the Champions’ League soccer final took place in Athens, was one of the most profitable in Greece’s tourism history, netting about €26 million, according to preliminary industry estimates. There has also been an increase in conferences and exhibitions in the greater Athens area as authorities start exploiting expensive Olympic venues, many of which have lain idle since 2004.

To show it is serious about upgrading its tourism services, the government has stepped up checks on hotels, threatening 800, or nearly 10 percent, with being shut down unless they get fire safety certification. But industry officials say cramped harbors, congested provincial airports and badly maintained roads also need attention.

There has been some progress. Works completed before the Olympics, the extension of the Athens Metro, the new Athens airport, road and rail network improvements, and the upgrading of passenger ferries, laid the foundations for robust growth in tourism.

This year, €800 million has been earmarked for revamping provincial airports. Harbors are being enlarged to accommodate large cruise ships, and the scheduled opening in June of southern Athens’ renovated marina at Flisvos is expected to lure a large crowd of wealthy yachting enthusiasts.

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