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Letter from Athens: Why The Tourists Just Keep Coming to Greece

November 13, 2021

Adding to plaudits as it became the world’s tourism hot spot in 2021, despite a now resurging COVID-19 pandemic, Greece was rated, along with Ireland, the second-best tourist destination in Europe, after Italy.

That came at the 25th edition of the annual American Readers’ Choice Awards organized by Worth Publications and the bi-monthly travel magazine Recommend.

Even the Coronavirus can’t keep people away, especially celebrities ranging from the great (Tom Hanks) to the absurd (Machine Gun Kelly) and people crazed to travel after being locked in and locked down and didn’t want to be locked out from seeing the place where it all began, and where dreams are made.

United Kingdom airlines are preparing up to two million more seats for 2022, expecting more people will want to escape to Greece to enjoy sun, sand, many of the world’s best beaches, food, history and archaeological sites.

After yet another record year in 2019, tourists were mostly kept away in 2020 as the pandemic took hold on the world, but 2021 saw a return of almost 75 percent of them despite the still-inherent dangers in traveling.

They came despite a mountain of document obstacles: COVID-19 tests, vaccination certificates, a European Union Green Pass, and a Passenger Locator Form, missing any one of which could keep you grounded at an airport.

Traveling during the pandemic is an ordeal, not a delight, and people won’t do it except to see family or to come to a place like Greece which offers relief.

They came despite raging wildfires and record heat that could melt the ice off Hillary Clinton. They came even if they faced being quarantined on returning to their home during periods when Greece was still deemed unsafe for travelers.

Some two million came in the summer alone and Greece, after relying for generations on word of mouth instead of advertising, has finally taken to promoting what it offers.

The plan is for year-round tourism – highlighting what else you can do in Greece besides swim and sit on an island beach. Come for Athens, overlook the grime and graffiti and be carried away on the buzz of eccentric little neighborhoods, world-class coffee shops, and specialty stores where you can find real cheese, meat and other foodstuffs.

Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias told SKAI radio that, “Greek tourism is not switching to autopilot, nor did it do so last year. A very great effort has been made in the midst of the pandemic and it is clearly a result of the efforts of hoteliers, the transport sector, people who work in the tourism professions, airlines, tour operators, but also due to the country’s advertising campaign, the visitors, and the sustainable tourist product.”

That’s typical boilerplate ministerial talk except it’s the right idea even from a guy who has no experience in the field.

So why do they?

It’s the squid.

After you’ve had fried or grilled squid at a Greek seaside taverna you can’t have it anywhere else. Visiting my daughter and grandchildren on Long Island, New York, we went to a renowned restaurant and ordered the calamari: it tasted like wet elastics.

In September here in Greece, my partner and I like to vacation at a little fishing village on the north end of the island of Evia, Greece’s second-largest, where there’s a tiny restaurant 10 steps from the sea.

Sometimes in the morning you can see the owner sitting in a chair fishing outside. When we walk past and ask what he’s doing, he says, “Catching your dinner for tonight.” After that, you can’t have squid or fish anywhere else, apart from Boston, where the cod and halibut and haddock are unmatched.

It’s the tomatoes.

In the United States, the tomatoes – apart from those at some superb farms or specialty stores – come from supermarkets and are immature, are packed in chambers and gassed with ethylene to turn red, but are not ripe, and not tasty.

When my daughter and her husband visited Greece and he tried a real tomato he said he was spoiled and couldn’t eat them anywhere else. He had to hunt at stores and farms in New York to find something approaching them.

It’s the weather.

Along with just a handful of places in the world: the Canary Islands, Oahu, San Diego, Sydney, Mombasa, Costa Rica, Greece has the best weather in the world, mostly sunny,  pleasant and carries no ill wind, freeing your mind and heart.

It’s the light.

“Whoever has seen Greece will carry forever in his heart the remembrance of a miracle of light. No blinding glare, no blazing colors, but an all-pervading, luminous brightness which bathes the foreground in a delicate glow, yet makes the furthest distances clearly visible,” wrote German dramatist and novelist Gerhart Hauptmann.

It’s the charm.

In funky city neighborhoods like Athens’ Gazi and Psyrri and Plaka you can walk narrow streets and alleys and find a store that’s not a chain store with homogenized products which makes them all McDonald’s.

You can sit and have a coffee and take your time to gaze at everything and nothing in the place which pretty much created what gave us civilization.

So come to Greece.

 

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