This year has seen a worldwide increase in international tourism. The increase has impacted Greece to a disproportionate degree. Hotels are filled to overflowing; the islands are, figuratively speaking, overloaded and on the verge of sinking; finding a seat on an airplane or ship, either entering or leaving Greece or traveling domestically has become a crap shoot. The London Daily Mail has conducted a survey indicating that Santorini is the Number 1 European tourism destination. Total arrivals in Greece look set to surpass the 31.3 million who came (pre-covid) in 2019. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, tourists spent 20% more money than in same period of 2022.
Good news, you say? Tourism has in large part allowed the Greek economy so far this year to perform better in terms of GDP growth and deficit reduction than any other in Europe and every indication looks rosy for the near term future.
Why then is the Greek press full of bitter complaints? Prices have climbed astronomically, especially in hotels; even Airbnb has become a luxury experience. As one consequence, Greeks who look forward to their August vacations are finding it impossible to find accommodations they can afford. There are other costs as well. One Greek official noted that daily visits to the Acropolis in April surpassed numbers normally seen in August, the height of the tourist season. This has even led to fist fights at the gates. The influx of 30+ million tourists over a relatively short tourist season will put unsustainable stress on the environment and national infrastructure. The country’s waste management and water systems and its beautiful natural areas, especially on beaches and smaller islands, simply cannot cope with these numbers.
Tourism will remain a bedrock contributor to the economy. However, to ensure its long-term sustainability, Greece must implement strategic measures to manage the impact of this surge, preserve its natural and cultural heritage, and create a thriving tourism sector that benefits both visitors and its citizens. The government must and, unlike previous governments, is taking actions to ensure that tourism provides maximum benefit to Greece’s economy and population while protecting and even enhancing what we love about the Old Country.
First and foremost, Greece must invest in long term sustainable infrastructure development crucial to accommodating increasing numbers over the long term. Greece should focus on improving transportation, communications, and internet networks, enhancing waste management systems, and upgrading utilities. It should emphasize environmentally sound investment such as renewable energy sources and efficient water management. Given abundant sun and wind (as well as untapped geothermal resources), Greece can minimize its need for imported oil and gas. It even demonstrated last summer that it can operate on 100% non-fossil fuel energy for a day or two.
Greece is not only a beach. Too many tourists see Greece as one big beach and until a few years ago the National Tourism Organization only promoted the country as a venue for one big beach party. Promoting diversified destinations is essential if the country is to cope with increased tourism. Greece must highlight lesser-known regions, rural areas, and cultural sites. This approach alleviates overcrowding in popular destinations, stimulates local economies, creates job opportunities, promotes its rich history and preserves the authenticity of local communities.
Greece also needs to educate tourists to support sustainable tourism. It should find ways to encourage tourists to embrace sustainable travel practices, cultural sensitivity, and environmental stewardship. Encouraging tourists to respect local customs and protect natural resources fosters a harmonious relationship between visitors and locals, thus preserving Greece’s unique heritage.
Greek citizens can benefit from such education as well; this is not merely a ‘feel good’ issue, it preserves value for future generations. Greek local governments should be empowered to involve their communities in tourism development and ensure they participate in local decision-making. If you made it, you own it! Greece can encourage community-based tourism initiatives where local inhabitants emphasize the diversity of each province and island, thus preserving local crafts and culinary traditions now disappearing under the homogenization that has prevailed for so many years. Maintaining local cultural identity is worthwhile in its own right; however, it also makes money for the community.
Perhaps most important, Greece should design programs that will extend the tourism season. This year, the huge surge in tourism has extended the season largely because demand overwhelmed the supply of airplane seats and hotel beds during July and August. Greece needs to get ahead of the curve. Developing winter activities such as hiking, wellness retreats, adventure tourism, gastronomy tours, and cultural festivals will attract visitors during off-peak months. Greece has unique tourism assets whose value it has not fully exploited. As the cradle of western civilization, it must market educational travel year round. As the cradle of Christianity, Greece has an opportunity to encourage large scale religious tourism aimed not just at Orthodox believers but at students and believers of other denominations who should be eager to learn about the origins of their faith. If Greece wants to minimize the negative effects of mass tourism and benefit from the positive returns, it must expand the visitor base.
Greece can lead in sustainable tourism by managing the huge increase in visitors effectively. Infrastructure development, destination diversification, and education are essential to creating a balanced and thriving tourism sector. Greece must preserve its natural and cultural treasures, create economic opportunities, and ensure a long term future for tourism.