Stavros Arnaoutakis was a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the PASOK) party and also served as Deputy Minister for the Economy. In 2010 he was elected as the governor for the Crete Region supported by PASOK and as a result of his energetic and effective leadership he continues to serve in that capacity. He recently spoke to The National Herald about the prospects for the post-COVID general economic recovery and tourism rebound as well as his vision for the future of Crete.
The National Herald: It is well known that tourism is a priority for the Crete’s regional government. What are your plans for this year's season after the difficult year for tourism last year due to the pandemic?
Stavros Arnaoutakis: Crete is facing two major challenges: tackling the pandemic, for which we still have a long way to go, and tourism, which is a vital priority for us. Its revitalization is intertwined with public health protection measures. Having experienced the health crisis for a year, we are now familiar with both its visible and invisible aspects. First of all, we understand its detrimental effects on the whole spectrum of productive, economic, and social activity. But with the knowledge and experience we have gained, we are no longer in uncharted waters. We know more about the coronavirus this year, and most of all, we know what to do and how to behave until we win the final battle. With the vaccines, we will be winners.
When it comes to tourism, Crete maintains strong advantages. It remains an attractive destination and it is a safe destination. This fact adds value to it this year. It makes it competitive with other European regions. It is no coincidence that this year our island is even ahead of Mallorca. The preference of foreign visitors for Crete is an indicator of trust and a recognition of the quality of services we provide, and, of course, the special characteristics and uniqueness of our island. For a long time now, holidays in Crete have been synonymous with authentic experiences. We do not rely only on the well-known ‘sun and sea’ model. Visitors are also drawn to the natural and cultural treasures of the interior, which further enhance our comparative advantages. At this time, a few weeks before the expected start of the new tourist year, tourism operators are preparing. They expect, however, a clear plan from the government regarding the pandemic and potential visitors. For the region of Crete, dynamic initiatives are needed and a clear framework of rules that includes both those who have been vaccinated and those who have acquired antibodies, but also those who want to travel after first undergoing the necessary tests. Our goal is clear: Maximizing safety and the simultaneous recovery of the industry.
TNH: Is there a plan to support the businesses damaged by the pandemic?
SA: To this day, COVID-19 is still a moving target, but it is a challenge that we must face, healing as much as possible the wounds on the social and economic levels.
Recently, the results of a study by the Mechanism for the Regional Labor Market in Crete were presented. This is an innovative program. It is the first regional apparatus that records data on the labor market and businesses of the island. Based on these findings but also through cooperation with all entrepreneurs we are trying to expand the scope of our actions. For the Region of Crete, entrepreneurship does not merely constitute a branch of the economy. It also interacts with the primary sector, agriculture, and the tourism sector. It is intertwined with environmental, research and innovation efforts. Given this fact, utilizing all available financial tools, we strengthen the actors in the private sector, either through our Business Program, or through the Rural Development Program and the Strategy of Smart Specialization which is under the Development Law, and we are partnering with the entrepreneurs.
In addition, we are implementing the program of Digital Upgrading of Small and Medium Enterprises with a budget of 12,000,000 euros. We financed new tourism investments, including dozens of projects under the development law. At the same time, in the first half of 2020, 1,269 local transport companies were supported. Our main political decision was to support small and micro enterprises. For this reason, with a budget of 60,000,000 euros from our operational program, we are implementing actions to strengthen companies that face liquidity shortages and have suffered significant losses due to the effects of measures to reduce COVID-19 infections. From the Operational Program of Crete 2014-2020, through the end of the year, 546 projects were included, with a budget of 510 million euros.
TNH: Can Crete become an energy hub in the Southeastern Mediterranean. At what stage are the energy investments on the island?
SA: In recent years, Crete has been at the top of agendas for energy and the environment in the wider region of the Southeastern Mediterranean. Energy sector transitions in support of sustainable development are part of our vision as the Regional Government of Crete, which contributes with projects, actions, and initiatives that promote a cleaner and more ‘green’ economy and that seeks the achievement of the national goals set in the National Plan for Energy and Climate. In close cooperation with the competent ministries, the Energy Regulatory Authority, research and academic Institutions, the municipalities and all the productive bodies of Crete, we coordinate in order to lead the island to first place in energy developments, claiming the position we can and should to have on the regional and world energy map.
Crete is a milestone for energy initiatives, bringing together a large number of energy projects and investments within its territory. Major energy and gas projects, such as submarine power connections, the East Med pipeline, and exploration for potential hydrocarbon deposits, are just some of the strategic investments on the island. The great potential of renewable energy sources is another important factor that contributes dynamically to the regional and national sustainable energy transition.
In an environment where energy and economic development strongly interact, with environmental and geopolitical considerations that we feel constantly more and more, as the Regional Government of Crete, we recognize the importance of cooperation, at regional and international levels, in order to achieve, as far as possible, a convergence of objectives.
At the same time, transnational and European projects in the transmission and transportation of electricity and gas from the Mediterranean basin make our island an important factor in achieving the goals of the European Union, which are none other than the formation of an energy union, the interconnection of European energy networks, and energy security.
At the same time, these projects as well as the interconnection projects with the Greek mainland that have been launched (small and large interconnections), we have finally resolved the issues of energy security and supply of the island.
TNH: What will be the role of Crete in the European strategy for climate change?
AS: Over the last decade, environmental dangers have progressively dominated the global danger landscape. It is noteworthy that, according to the report of the World Economic Forum for 2019, as in the previous two years, three of the five most serious global risks, both in terms of probability and in terms of impact, are environmental and all of them are related to climate change.
With these realities, the Paris climate agreement is an important roadmap, which we must all follow. The same goes for the new climate policy framework adopted by the European Union to be achieved by 2030.
In this context, at the Regional Government of Crete we have included in our strategic planning climate change and its effects on the economy of the island, but at the same time we are pleased to be a pioneer in the management of environmental issues, such as regional waste management planning, the first region in the country to do that.
Regarding Climate Change in the region of Crete, on our own initiative and before the start of the drafting of the National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change, since 2014, we started the process of preparing a Regional Adaptation Plan in order to focus on the vulnerabilities of Crete without being distracted by general and theoretical studies and reports.
This is because we believe that the case of Crete is special due to its location and geomorphology, as the huge coastline exposes the island to the effects of severe weather and the future rise of sea levels.
Also, the location of Crete and its insularity make it even more difficult to manage the problems of drought, water scarcity, desertification, and hot weather.
Today we are in evaluation phase with two large consortia that have taken part in the Regional Planning Study Competition and we expect the process to be completed soon so we can begin its implementation. Let me point out that to date no other regional plan has been approved in Greece.
TNH: What is your vision for Crete?
SA: In recent years, strong foundations have been laid and important interventions have been made. Our strategic planning now focuses on quality development, social cohesion, employment support, digital transformation, active environmental management, and effective governance.
The Regional Government of Crete has been established as an engine of development as a bridge of communication with the institutions of the state. It actually acts as a stepping-stone so all of us can make leaps forward together.
The starting point for tomorrow is the strong foundation we have already built: the small and large interventions that we have made so far; the development projects that have been completed and have left a clearly positive result; the projects that are in the process of implementation and which are expected to strengthen the competitiveness of our economy, to expand the productive base, and of course, to strengthen social cohesion.
It is also our goal is to establish our island as a powerful development laboratory, though a regional government that will give young people opportunities to stay here, and that will guarantee the conditions of sustainability.
Let me emphasize at this point that the construction of a modern road from Kissamos to Sitia remains a strategic priority for the Region of Crete. The Northern Road Axis of Crete is a project of primary importance for all Cretans.
With strategic planning we created an integrated development context, in which we incorporate the data of the present, improving on the failures of previous programming periods, to successfully respond to the challenges of the future. This planning is the basis for the course that Crete will follow in the coming years.
It brings together and mobilizes all the productive forces, meeting the expectations of the citizens.
Let me point out that in a changing environment with increasing challenges and based on national planning forecasts, the European Union guidelines, as well as the ongoing major transformations taking place at international level, we have adopted five horizontal principles:
• Ensuring the creation of a level playing field and a common development zone comprising the countryside and urban centers;
• The development of specializations that will strengthen the competitiveness and the extroversion of the strong elements of our regional economy;
• The promotion of our historical and cultural heritage, the identity of Crete, as our intangible capital;
• Preventing and addressing the effects of climate change;
• The transition to a recycling economy in order to reduce the region’s environmental footprint.