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About Those Islands in the Northern Aegean

There seems to be no letup in the steady stream of statements by Turkish officials about the islands in the northern Aegean. This main sound naïve, but since those islands are in the news, Greece might as well take advantage of the free publicity.

The northern Aegean is one of the poorest regions in Greece in terms of per capita income, and a boost through tourism would be very welcome. There is a lot those islands can offer. For example Lemnos has superb sandy beaches and excellent local wine, as does Samos. Lesvos has a petrified forest and a spectacular seaside town built around the castle of Molyvos. Chios has the old stone-built mastic villages which have been added to UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

But according to the ‘Greece Investor Guide’ only 1% of the total number of tourists from abroad visited those islands in 2018. If the saying that all publicity is good publicity is true, perhaps the diplomatic tensions could be a starting point for Greece to make those islands better known.

In one of the most recent installments of the ongoing noise about those islands, Ankara summoned the Greek ambassador and protested to Washington after accusing Greece of deploying armored vehicles on the islands of Lesvos and Samos which are near the Turkish coast. Greece responded by describing that claim as completely unfounded and accused Ankara of aggressive behavior. The news was carried by most major news networks.

The diplomatic back and forth is likely to go on through June of next year when the next general elections will be held in Greece and Turkey – even though the idea that Greece would use its islands in the northern Aegean to threaten Turkey militarily is simply ludicrous. But saber rattling over those islands is apparently how Turkey’s politicians can deflect from the country’s real problems and drum up support based on far-fetched nationalistic claims.

Lesvos and Samos are part of the group of large islands in the northern Aegean along with Samothraki, Lemnos, Chios, and Samos.

Only a few years ago some of those same islands had received negative publicity because of the arrival of hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and the Middle East. The only visitors from abroad were members of non-government organizations (NGOs). Now, with the refugee situation under control, the Investor Guide website notes that international tour operators have been investing in Chios and Samos and “German airport operator Fraport has redeveloped and extended the airports of Samos and Lesvos, a move that will enhance the islands’ tourism economy.” Indeed, anyone who had gone through the older versions of those government-owned airports, marvels at their transformation from dysfunctional and cramped spaces to attractive and efficient facilities.

Yet the same website acknowledges that the tourist sector of the northern Aegean is lagging behind that of other regions of Greece. It does not explain why, but anyone who has spent some time on any of those islands can quickly recognize the obstacles.

The first has to do with economics. The local economy is based on agricultural products, such as olive oil, wines, mastic in Chios, and ouzo in Lesvos. Not exactly moneymakers, despite Chios’ extraordinary success in marketing mastic products internationally. Inexplicably, ouzo manufacturers on Lesvos appear incapable or unwilling to work towards enhancing awareness and branding of the drink that is closely identified with their island. Another of Lesvos’ attractions is the beach town of Eressos, the birthplace of the poet Sappho, who wrote about her love of women and which attracts many visitors. It could do with an upgrade in the quality of available hotel rooms. The island of Ikaria of course became known for its healthy food and lifestyle when it was the subject of a New York Times magazine article in 2012 titled ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die’. And through the workshops of Ikarian-origin Greek-American chef Diane Kochilas it has become the destination of a small but steady stream of foodies. But overall, it safe to say, the predominance of the agrarian economy has discouraged any systematic investment in tourism.

The political obstacles were summed up for me by a potential entrepreneur who was talking with officials on one of those islands about the possibility of building much needed hotels. Faced with the business proposal, a local official shrugged unexcitedly and asked, “and how does this benefit us politically?” Residents of the island who heard this story were not surprised. In many instances, some local authorities are microcosms of national politics in which political favors are distributed with re-election in mind rather than regional development, and they are not open to new ideas. But who knows, as long as the islands remain in the news, albeit as part of a diplomatic standoff, there is always the chance that things might change for the better on the tourist front.

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