NEW YORK – For there to be a new Greece, the consensus in and outside the country is that the country needs to be a new national mindset – and a new breed of politicians. Emmanouil Vournous, the new Mayor of the island of Chios is among the latter.
During a recent trip to the United States, Vournous traveled with Elias Smirniotes, a kindred spirit who is the R&D manager of the Chios Masticha Growers Association and a member of the Chios Town Council. They participated in the Greek Parade and were introduced to Greek-Americans by fellow Chian and former NY State Assemblyman Matthew Mirones.
Vournous spoke to TNH about his ideas and motivation. “I think this trend constitutes the future of Greece, but Chios was among the first places where it emerged,” he said of the advent of “politicians with lay professions.” Outside the big cities, the concept was yet to catch on, “but the people in Chios, who are very progressive, immediately supported it,” he said.
Vournous is not affiliated with any party, but was part of movement that emerged on Chios just prior to this election. “We were not tangled up in politics before that. We were involved in our own professions but we decided it was our duty, for the good of our island. Citizens should be involved in local politics, which should not be left to professional politicians” he said in excellent English.
His team’s priority is to promote the island’s economic progress. “If we don’t work to boost the economic life of the island we will be in a very difficult situations. We have to create jobs and opportunities,” he said, earnestly.
That means attracting international investment, and he said they will focus on three sectors: tourism – the island has great international appeal for its natural and man-made beauty; shipping – Chios’ human resources in that area are extraordinary, as are its schools, and agriculture – the islanders produce products of high quality.
Chios produces fine wines and liquors whose potential has not been realized – he wants the island’s firms to add value to their produce rather than merely sell it as raw material.
They are thinking big. Vournous hopes to reorganize the schools and expand them. The goal is to turn Chios into a national and even global center for naval education.
Images of the picturesque island are a magnet for tourists. The renowned monastery of Nea Moni with its exceptional Byzantine mosaics is on the World Heritage list and in 2014, by virtue of the culture of the mastic tree, which is unique to Chios, the island was added to UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list.
Among the areas his wishes to develop are eco-tourism – the island has some of the most diverse flora in the Mediterranean – and culinary tourism “the flavors that come out of Chios’ kitchens are sensational.”
Attracting investment from abroad, especially from the Diaspora, is extremely important, but he also understands that investors who have been disappointed in the past must have radically different experiences.
He told TNH: “We are working on creating a more attractive investment environment, where people can more quickly and easily establish businesses that produce profits for the investors and also benefit Chios.”
Investments are most welcome, he said, but care will be taken – and he will rely on his expertise in architecture and preservation to guide his efforts – to attract ventures, especially in the tourism field, that are appropriate to the island and its environment.
Just as he emphases Chios’ human capital, Vournous told TNH “we invite the Diaspora to bring not only capital, but their expertise.”
He especially values “their experience as business persons abroad, because they can help the Greek citizen to reestablish on better bases his relationship with the Greek state, which is at the heart of the current crisis.”
Vournous was born and raised on Chios, where his family has deep roots. He earned degrees in architecture and a master’s degree at the University of York – the birthplace of Constantine the Great – in the conservation of historic buildings.
He and his wife, Katerina Manoliadi, who is from Eleusis and is also an architect, operate an office together on Chios, where they are raising their two children.
Vournous inherited his sense of public service from his parents. His father, Michalis Bournos, was a cardiologist on Chios but he was also involved in civic and political matters, as was his mother, Evangelia, who raised him and his four siblings.
“They taught us that we have an obligation to be involved in civic matters, and to love the place where we live,” he said.