The regional governor of Crete, Stavros Arnaoutakis, spoke to The National Herald about the progress the island has made in attracting and accommodating tourists, the prospects ahead, and the efforts made by the region to strengthen Crete’s tourism brand.
The National Herald: How did the tourist season of 2018 close out in Crete?
Stavros Arnaoutakis: First and foremost, Mr. Koutsila, I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and for the interest you and The National Herald have shown towards promoting Crete to the Greek diaspora. According to the National Bank of Greece, the 2018 tourist season saw an income increase of 200 million euros in comparison to the 2017 season. Comparing the 2014 season with the one that just closed, there has been an increase of 600,000 tourists. Actually, during the months of October-November and March-April the visitors exceeded 280,000, significantly contributing to the expansion of the tourist season. It is worth noting that, by September, more than 3.7 million tourists arrived at the airport of Heraklion. Crete has achieved a strong, steady stride in the international tourist environment, despite the successive developments and developments in the wider region, and the ever-increasing competition. 2018 was yet another year of strong performances across the board following a record-breaking 2017. This development did not happen by chance, but instead came to be through a structured plan combining political, operational, and communications initiatives. The plan that we implemented included cooperation with the relevant national Ministries and businesspeople of the tourism field so that we may better exploit opportunities and tackle the challenges at hand.
TNH: Is Crete targeting the lower volume tourist months? Is the island doing something about that?
S.A.: In the Region of Crete, we are implementing our strategic plan to support tourism, bringing new data to the forefront. This will bring even more insight into the distinctiveness of the island. In this way, we are aiming to highlight our traditional advantages, relating to the natural environment, climatic conditions, soil geomorphology and kilometers of clean coasts.
Apart from these things, through an integrated strategic approach, we strive to present Crete as a tourist destination that is ideal for the entire year. The island can meet the needs of specialized groups such as: tourists, athletes, scientists, students, etc.
Seasonality is recognized as the most prominent feature of the tourism industry, and, is at the same time, the most important problem the industry is faces.
In Crete, the overwhelming majority of arrivals at tourist accommodation facilities took place between the months of June and September. This comes at a point in the year when competitor nations experience a clear drop in seasonal visitors. The seasonality of tourism in Greece is manifested in different ways per tourist destination, which makes it necessary to tackle the issue head-on at a regional level.
In this way, it will be possible to identify possible regional inequalities in seasonality and more fully map out the regional breakdown of the tourist season. The extension of said season can only come from a comprehensive strategic development plan that includes the highlighting of comparative advantages that each region possesses, strategic partnerships with airlines and tour operators abroad, and the cohesiveness of all relevant stakeholders that should support the endeavor of elongating the tourist season. A basic prerequisite for attracting visitors at the end of the season is to highlight our appeal for interest-based tourism so that those individuals can enjoy their respective interests in a supportive environment.
TNH: Can the current tourist infrastructures in Crete support larger tourist flows or a longer season?
S.A.: Crete has all the infrastructure necessary to support even greater tourist flows throughout the year. The development of alternative forms of tourism, which will drastically contribute to the mitigation of seasonality, remains necessary. In the next few years, with the construction of the new international airport in Kastelli, which will be built in the coming months, and after the operational upgrading of the three airports of the island, Heraklion, Chania, and Sitia, our island will be able to easily respond to a mass tourist season which will expand into the winter months as well.
TNH: How can the quality of the tourism “product” of Crete be improved? Is there a specific plan that the regional government has come up with to address this?
S.A.: In the Region of Crete, we continue to implement a regional tourism policy that works in parallel with national endeavors. We have seen the first positive results in the extension of the tourist season, the emergence and promotion of new thematic forms, the opening of new dynamic foreign markets, and the attraction of investments focusing on higher quality.
Building on what we have achieved so far, we are entering 2019 more dynamically to strengthen the international identity and image of our island as a unique, world-renowned destination that offers authentic travel experiences 365 days a year in the wider Mediterranean area.
Responding to global trends, we are working, through the use of modern tools available to us, to advance and promote Crete in the most modern and effective way in targeted markets.
At the same time, we have introduced and utilize all modern methods that are part of an increasingly dynamic field of development in tourism. We do this in order to make tourism even more business and investment-friendly. We want to create the conditions for companies to acquire the necessary supplies and tools to ensure that they are highly competitive so that they may best meet the increasing demands of our visitors.
For the Region of Crete, tourism is not a matter of concern only to professionals and workers in the tourism sector. It is a key factor in the growth prospects of Crete. In this context, we are depending on all the productive forces of the island in order to build a regional alliance in response to the challenges of the coming years. We are absolutely certain that we will succeed.
TNH: Is the tourist ‘route’ of Crete connected with that of Greece or can the island operate independently of the rest of the country?
S.A.: It is well known that the tourist industry is reflects international developments, and more so with domestic conditions, socio-economic conditions and the political environment.
Tourism mirrors the surrounding environment. A good tourist year for Greece clearly affects our island.
TNH: Operationally, how is the regional government driving up the island’s visibility – where are you narrowing your focus?
S.A.: As I mentioned before, our goal remains the continuation of the tourist stream year-round. The prolongation of the tourist season is the great challenge that we all have to meet. Three equally important conditions have to be met in order to achieve this objective.
Firstly, with coordinated communication initiatives we must dispel the myth that Crete is an exclusively summer destination. The local comparative advantages that make it an ideal destination, 12 months a year, should be brought to the forefront.
Secondly, there must be a single, coherent, development policy that creates balanced tourism development opportunities throughout the island.
Thirdly, at a local level, powerful and autonomous tourism offices must promote the development of tourism in the winter. The goal should be to attract foreign visitors throughout the year so that there is not such a great discrepancy between winter and summer tourism. This requires efficient promotion and communication abroad outlining a comprehensive winter tourism package.
Foreigners do not generally know that Crete has large mountain ranges with plateaus and mountain slopes suitable for climbing. Dozens of mountainous villages are transformed into centers of culture and gastronomy during the winter.
The communication policy of the Region of Crete in recent years has singled-out and won praise at a national, European and global level. It is a strategy based on specific thematic axes. Particularly in Cretan cuisine, agricultural products and food, nature, culture and history, religious tourism, Cretan tradition, alternative activities, medical tourism, etc.
TNH: What place do you think is Crete’s chief competitor? What are the advantages of Crete compared to other islands?
S.A.: To theorize about competition, we must first and foremost compare ourselves to ourselves. First we, in cooperation with the Municipalities of Crete, the tourism industry, the workers in tourism, have an obligation to continue to support the “heavy industry” of the island.
Beyond that, the identity of Crete at the southern edge of Europe, in the heart of the Mediterranean, continues to be its greatest advantage.
Every corner of Crete, every village, every city, from Zakros to Elafonissi and from Gramvousa to Ierapetra, is a unique experience for the visitor. These are the images that for centuries now, create a unique setting. A multi-dimensional mosaic complemented by the elements of our culture, our Christian tradition, our customs and our natural landscape.
For all visitors, Crete is a special is a special and unique tourist destination. It’s not just the qualities of a modern tourist destination that bring millions of foreign visitors to Crete. Crete is a place endowed with nature enthralling the tourist. Millennia-old stories and traditions come to life at the sites of Minoan civilization.
Hospitality is the hallmark of our national and local identity, transforming the island into a friendly and intimate place for all foreign visitors. The security that the visitors of our island feel complements the sense of a one-of-a-kind trip.
TNH: Do you have an idea, yet, about prospects for the upcoming season?
S.A. 2019 will be a challenging year for tourism in Crete. After four years of ever-increasing arrivals, we now have an idiosyncratic year. The tourism industries of Turkey, Egypt, and other countries are recovering. At the same time Brexit creates new conditions in the tourist market which we cannot yet grasp. With the data we have, however, we believe that Crete will attract millions of tourists for another year, registering a tourist season just as satisfying as in previous years.