There are two things one understands immediately about Western Greece: Your eyes, indeed all your senses open the gateway to the region’s beauty and its flavors. And history tells you about the struggles of its people, fighting invaders and other massive challenges for millennia. Last year, the indomitable population was hit by the COVID pandemic – and as we have come to expect, they faced it pragmatically and philosophically. And now that this latest menace is being overcome, they are ready to welcome the world with their renowned affability and hospitality.
Western Greece’s regional governor Nektarios Farmakis was delighted to share his thoughts and an invitation for The National Herald’s Gateway to Greece special insert.
TNH: What was the impact of COVID in 2020?
Nektarios Farmakis: The pandemic disturbed many people and even challenged values or human achievements that for the whole of the Western world, at least, had previously seemed self-evident, such as the freedom of movement of people and goods. Greece, like the rest of the world, faced an unprecedented ‘storm’ in 2020 and worked to support public health and to mitigate the turmoil in the economy and society. The pandemic, on the one hand, showed us how vulnerable humanity remains even to tiny and almost invisible enemies, but on the other hand it reminded us how much there is a need for cooperation and solidarity between regions and nations. In Greece in particular, the impact of the pandemic was even greater as the country was coming out of a ten-year economic crisis, but also because COVID hit hardest its biggest industry, namely tourism.
However, now that we have already entered the vaccination process and we are creating a substantial ‘wall’ against the virus, we rightly hope that the coming months will be much better. The upcoming summer season will mark the first renaissance for tourism and at the same time, a major and serious discussion has already started for the more productive development of the country, strengthening other sectors of the economy besides tourism. In this context, Western Greece has impressive prospects. It is the Greek region with the third highest level of plant and animal production and the area with the greatest water potential. Investments in the primary sector, as well as in the ‘green energy’ and ‘green economy’ sectors will be huge. Also, due to its geographical location, it is a commercial hub in the eastern Mediterranean with strong prospects for the growth of trade and transport. Finally, we must not forget that Western Greece is the land of Olympia, the "land of the global flame" of the Olympic games, a place that hundreds of millions of people from all over the world want to visit. So I have a very strong belief that we can completely reverse the painful impact of the pandemic and turn the problem into an opportunity.
TNH: What are the plans to deal with the pandemic this year and what are the tourism prospects?
NF: From the first moment of the pandemic, the Region of Western Greece gave priority to the formulation of a plan for the protection of society and the strengthening of the local health system. In addition to what the central government has done, from the very first days we have allocated half a million euros to strengthening the Intensive Care Units of the region and 21 million euros for the recruitment of temporary staff. Also, in collaboration with the University of Patras and various medical associations, we procured and performed molecular and rapid tests, while we also put into operation a network of remote medical services (telemedicine) and care for the elderly, allocating five million euros. We have also provided personal protection and hygiene items to hundreds of agencies, associations, and institutions in our area for them to distribute to people in need. At the same time, we activated resources amounting to 60 million euros to support local entrepreneurship and the economy, with the aim of avoiding job losses and an explosion of unemployment. With all the means at our disposal, we stood by our fellow citizens, setting as absolute priorities two vital values: The value of human life and the value of social mobilization for the common struggle against the virus.
Through this process we protected our region with actions which we strongly believe also amount a strong investment for the future. And this year, we will continue to act in the same way, being ready to protect our region and its people, but also the visitors we look forward to greeting. We are sure that the tourism prospects of Western Greece are auspicious, not only because it is a place worth visiting, but also because it is a safe place for all.
TNH: What can you tell us about the changes will we see after COVID in tourism in Western Greece?
NF: As I have already mentioned, one of the strong demands of tourism in the coming season will be safety and health protection. Western Greece is already one of the most well-protected areas of Greece, let me say of Europe. I also believe that tourism in the post-COVID era will not be just ‘sun and sea’ tourism. The industry will need to provide the visitor with a more comprehensive encounter with Greece. Leisure and touring will be part of the experience, but we will also present ‘flavor experiences’, and ‘safety experiences’ – of course the overall experience will be one of quality, providing our visitors with a ‘value for money’ package. Western Greece is a region that can offer all this and more. Amazing beaches, a rare beauty, and remarkable landscapes and protected natural environs. We offer tours of world class archeological sites such as Ancient Olympia with itineraries that combine mountains and sea, and local gastronomic pleasures based on the Mediterranean diet. Transportation and access from Athens have been upgraded and the region has local airports and connections by ship with Italy. And all this at reasonable prices that prove that we value and honor our visitors.
TNH: here have been major developments in transport infrastructure in Greece – airports, roads, railways – and much more has been planned. How will this affect economic development and tourism in Western Greece?
NF: Transport infrastructure plays a dominant role in the economic development and the tourism potential of any region. Western Greece, at a steady pace, is breaking out of the peculiar isolation in which it found itself in recent years. Now, the new highway connects the area with Athens in just two hours. The beautiful Rio-Antirrio bridge ensures very fast access from the northern Peloponnese to the Mainland and Central Greece, while the new high-speed suburban railway from Athens now reaches Aigio, that is, ‘a breath’ away from the large metropolitan center of Patras – and in a few years that city will also be connected. In addition, the airport of Aktio in northwestern Aitoloakarnania already handles hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Ionian islands and coasts in the west of the country. The port of Patras remains Greece’s gateway to Western Europe, with regular ferry service between Patras and Italy. The transportation network will become even stronger when the new highway between Patras and Pyrgos is completed and of course, when the new railway reaches the port of Patras. The creation of new and modern infrastructure is another strong advantage for the economic development of our region.
5) What are the recent archaeological developments in your area? Very recently we have integrated and financed another important development in Ancient Olympia, which concerns the promotion and restoration of an important part of the ancient gymnasium. That is the place where the ancient Olympic athletes were competing and preparing for other competitions. This is a project that will contribute to the attractiveness and the understanding of the archaeological site. In addition, we have moved quickly to finance the promotion of the ancient theaters of Aitoloakarnania, which has the most ancient theaters in Greece, a total of six. We have also funded work on the castle of Patras and the castle of Chlemoutsi in Ilia, while our ambition is, in collaboration with Greek and internationally renowned organizations, to spotlight the mythological connections of the Erymanthos mountain and river, an area connected with the famous Labors of Hercules.
TNH: What are the important things you would like Greek-Americans to know about developments in your area? Is there any message you would like to send to the Greek community?
NF: What we want above all if for our expatriates and especially those who come from our parts, namely Achaia, Ilia, and Aitoloakarnania, to be proud of their place of origin. Proud not only of the ‘yesterday’, but also of the ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ of this place. Proud not only because this region is a Greek land with more than 3,000 years of history, but because it is a region that with dynamism and extroversion is coming back to the European and World stage. We cooperate with all the other Greek regions and especially our neighboring ones, because we know that development is not an ‘individual sport’, but a ‘team sport’. One example is our agreement with the Attica Region and the Peloponnese Region for the creation of a long cycling route from Marathon to Ancient Olympia, and there is also the agreement of all the Regions of western Greece about the need to complete a major western road axis which will connect the Western Balkans with Western Greece. We are already working closely with many other European regions and with the embassies of many countries in Greece, having developed strong and lasting relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Athens. As the conditions of the pandemic allow in the near future, we have already planned a series of contacts with many actors in the European Union and in the United States. We have formed a comprehensive plan for the economic and touristic development of the region, developing an extroverted character in the international context. So let our expatriates in the United States be proud of us and have confidence in us, as we are proud and are confident of them.
And of course, we are waiting for them all to visit us at the first opportunity. Greeks, wherever we are, we must be united – not even the coronavirus can deprive us of what connects us!