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Ionian Islands: A Different Greece, a Ravishing, Fascinating Greece

Rodi Kratsa-Tsangaropoulou is the Regional Governor for the Ionian Islands, and as a past Vice President of the European Parliament, she has many places to compare her homeland with – and the Ionian realm still comes out on top.

The National Herald: I am sure you will not blush when I say that your region is one of the most beautiful in Greece – but for Greek-Americans who have not been there, what else would you like to tell them?

Rodi Kratsa-Tsangaropoulou: The Ionian Islands are internationally known for their history, natural beauty, culture, music, rich agricultural products, and the charismatic and hospitable character of the inhabitants. The mild climate and the calm sea combined with the proximity to the mainland, and the airline connections make them accessible and the stay pleasant every season of the year.

They have a common historical course stretching back centuries that has given them a rich cultural heritage. And while they form group, each island has a unique and special physio-geographical identity. All Ionian Islands are ideal destinations for both cosmopolitan and humble, quiet winter-summer holidays. The enchanting natural landscapes, the green areas, the lacy shores, the pebbles or sandy beaches, impressive sea caves with remarkable light that complements gorgeous sunsets, delightful Ionian islands architecture and remarkable monuments combined with modern infrastructure make the Ionian Islands an attraction for Greek and foreign tourists all year long.

For those who have never heard of the beauty and charm of the Ionian Islands and never thought to visit them, I invite them to visit, to get to know them and then share the wonderful experiences with their friends.

There are more reasons to visit our islands. They are located in a safe geopolitical area and you find places with a cosmopolitan atmosphere as well as traditional villages. There are wonderful beaches and you can participate in cultural music events, combining them with alternative forms of tourism such as sailing, diving, fishing, and much more.

TNH: The Ionian islands are sources of much of Greece’s music, literature and art – how is culture woven into the region’s tourism master plan?

RK: The Ionian Islands have a rich history whose origins are lost in the depths of time, following a common course over the centuries, often independent of mainland Greece. They were not part of the Ottoman Empire, nor did they experience Ottoman rule like the rest of Greece. They also they received significant influences from Western Europe from their various conquerors and protectors, resulting in a cultural uniqueness compared to the rest of Greece.

At the same time, they kept alive their Greek soul and language, while heroically helping the Greek Revolution of 1821 in many ways.

For all these reasons, we strongly promote cultural tourism, inviting our visitors to experience the special cultural identity and heritage of the Ionian islands.

I wish to point out in particular the high cultural and architectural value of our towns, such as the Old Town of Corfu, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Achilles palace, the Museum of Dionisios Solomos, and the Hill of Strani in Zakynthos, where our national poet was inspired as he wrote our National Anthem, Ithaca of Odysseus, Kefalonia with its ‘leventia’, thematic museums, and places reflecting  historical and spiritual traditions.

All this forms the special Ionian culture. We highlight our great cultural heritage, in which the local community actively participates, through cultural festivals, our rich musical tradition, and artistic and other events expressing also modern culture, as well as 2021 events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek Revolution of 1821.

TNH: The Italian influence on music, architecture and cuisine is strong – what are your favorite local foods and places to visit in the Ionian that are different from the rest of Greece?

RK: The Ionian Islands have a rich cultural tradition that is complemented by modern elements – which in many places and activities have Venetian roots – but it is not just that. Our gastronomy is based on our fine agricultural products such as fine olive oil, unique wine, raisins of high nutritional value, certified traditional cheeses, as well as sweets – but don’t take my word for that – try them yourselves.

The Ionian Islands Region is rich in agri-food production and its products are presented at international exhibitions and contribute to the promotion of our region.

The promotion of local Ionian cuisine and the emergence of its own version of the Mediterranean diet are important developments, supporting the livelihood of our residents.

We are developing a study for the creation of a Local Quality Pact and the establishment of local gastronomy groups for the promotion of the products and the networking of the productive bodies among themselves but also with the tourist market. Among our priorities is the promotion of the wines of the region in third countries as high quality products that are characterized by authenticity and special characteristics. With a strong sense of origin, winemakers are co-decision makers, and our actions are responsive to markets. This fostered a spirit of innovation that advanced wine and oil markets are looking for, as we can see from the international exhibitions in which we participate.

The cuisine is delicious. Corfu offers unique flavors: sofrito, pastitsada, burdeto, Lefkada has savoro, kokoto, fresh fish, Englouvi of Lefkada also features lentils and kouloura pie. Kefalonia offers meat pies, burbourelia, cigarettes, rabbit stew, rooster spaghetti, and meatballs.

TNH: Are there special relationships with municipalities in Italy and how are they related to regional tourism plans?

RK: The history of the Ionian Islands Region is deeply connected with Italy. The commonalities of these neighboring countries are substantial and real: morals, customs, and traditions, history and culture. Even in the economies of these two regions we observe common needs, goals, and directions. This fact constantly encourages and makes possible and reasonable the cooperation of these two regions.

In the INTERREG Greece-Italy program, in which, of course, our Region participates through many projects, we see this cooperation yielding positive developments at every level. Through the implementation of all these actions, one of the many results that emerge is the restructuring and strengthening of local economies. Through the joint actions of the two regions, remote and special areas of the Ionian Sea are promoted and projected in Italy, just as regions of Italy are projected here.

Our history, our common sea, and the collaborations with the regions, municipalities and universities of Italy create solid foundations and there is much that shows they will continue even more dynamically in the future. The INTERREG (European Cross-Border Program) is particularly important for our region and allows the regions of Europe, and in particular those of Italy, to work with us to address common challenges and to submit joint proposals.

Indicatively I mention: The CIAK, where we work with the Apulia Film Commission from the Italian side in order to highlight the comparative advantages of our islands to attract producers and investors in the film industry. OCTANE, where we work with the University of Bari and a Consortium for the development of the Conca Barese area that aims to enhance the tourist experience of visitors by creating a mobile application that will allow the visitor to walk around our islands, as if it were an ‘open’ museum. As part of the implementation of CREATIVE HUBS, we collaborate with the Region of Puglia for the creation of Cultural Institutions (Clusters) that will support the Cultural and Creative industry, to support artists and cultural activities in both Italy and the Ionian Islands.

All this acquires special attention and constant communication between the inhabitants of the Ionian Islands and Italy and with the tourism officials between the regions.

TNH: How is the Ionian region addressing the pandemic and preparing for visitors this year?

RK: Our Region relies mainly on tourism, which suffered a big blow in 2020 due to COVID. During the pandemic we projected an image of the safe tourist destination in various ways inside and outside Greece, and we responded to the messages of the friends of the Ionian Islands from all over the world by providing them with helpful information.

Today, we welcome our summer visitors, fully organized and implementing a comprehensive plan making our islands attractive to tourists. They are competitive, and we have emphasized the promotion of our islands as destinations that are safe,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        both in terms of public health during the pandemic, and civil protection as a result of any unforeseen weather events.

The occasional Reports of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) rank the Ionian Islands Region as one of the safest regions in all of Europe, and beyond.

Vaccinations against COVID-19 are moving at satisfactory rates on all islands, especially on Corfu, which is the most populous – we are operating a new mega vaccination center as part of the Blue Freedom program. In addition, the Coast Guard will soon provide, with our funding, for the treatment and transportation needs of patients on the islands that do not have large hospitals, two modern and properly designed and equipped boats.

We offer a specialized information program for the implementation of the health protocols to all categories of tourism enterprises and professionals based on special action plans, according to the recommendations of EODY (National Public Health Organization), and which are reviewed in response to developments. 

TNH: Greece has had increasing success in presenting Greece as more than just an escape for ‘sea and sun’ – what are some of the year-round attractions of the Ionian Islands?

The ‘sun and sea’ model that is associated with mass tourism is considered obsolete and requires the development of additional characteristics. Tourists don’t just want to go to a nice place, they want to live special experiences, to really discover a place, to ‘taste’ all its goods things and to appreciate them.

The Ionian Islands can provide visitors with many options and we have many opportunities to create high added value in all types of tourism. We can offer more possibilities of encounters with ‘alternative tourism’ in the context of both our and rich natural environment and our cultural treasures. We can begin with our wonderful cultural tradition and our special gastronomy and add to that all many possibilities of maritime tourism.

In order to fully utilize our advantages we plan to create a DMO (Destination Management Organization) that will aim at a targeted and structured policy for all our tourist destinations in the Ionian Islands.

I will mention that important ‘arrows in our quiver’ include cruise tourism, whose first signs are positive, and yachting, since the Ionian is a paradise on the route of yachts travelling from the Western to the Eastern Mediterranean, which the Film Office of our Region has focused on, as film tourism has flourished in recent years.

Our unique Easter and Carnival customs, the opportunities for hiking and mountaineering tourism definitely make the Ionian Islands – small and large – a wonderful choice for alternative types of holidays. Again, we have the potential to extend the tourist season due to the richness of the cultural elements and through musical and cultural events, interesting places to visit, and the promotion of our gastronomy throughout the year.

We are waiting for you at every moment and season.

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