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Travel

Regional Governor of Crete Stavros Arnaoutakis on the Unique Island Destination

Regional Governor of Crete Stavros Arnaoutakis spoke with The National Herald about the island, its unique cultural experiences and hidden gems.

The National Herald: What unique cultural experiences does Crete offer to visitors that set it apart from other Greek islands?

Stavros Arnaoutakis: The favorable position of ‘Krissas Gis’ [Cretans’ land’] at the crossroads of the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean was the main reason for the development of a great civilization, but also for the continuous claim different cultures have on the island throughout the centuries. Crete managed to keep its unique and strong character until today. Religion, the glorious history of antiquity, and the wild Cretan nature shaped the personality of the Cretans, who kept their soul Greek after centuries of slavery. Initially, this special location was the birthplace of Zeus, the ruler of the gods and people and the god of hospitality. Even today, the hospitality of the Cretans is more than a ritual. In the place where the first brilliant European civilization, the Minoan, flourished, the past mixes with the present. Centuries later, great Byzantine emperors passed through our island.

The Apostle Paul taught here. Our homeland is lit by the sacred flame of Arcadius and it was glorified through the ruins of burned villages during the Second World War.

Crete gave the world the unique creations of Domenikos Theotokopoulos. It touched the hearts of millions of people with the lyrics of the Erotokritos and it traveled to the ends of the earth with the books of Nikos Kazantzakis. Crete followed Eleftherios Venizelos in his flight, inspired by his visions and open horizons. This is the course of Crete over the years. These are just some of the multifaceted cultural dimensions that make Crete unique.

Regional Governor of Crete Stavros Arnaoutakis. Photo: Courtesy of Stavros Arnaoutakis

TNH: Can you highlight some of the lesser-known attractions or hidden gems on the island that tourists should explore?

SA: Crete hosts a unique and rare natural environment that is reflected in the 53 areas of the Natura 2000 network that cover approximately 32% of the island’s area, while traces of its famous culture are scattered throughout. UNESCO has recognized the value of the natural and cultural environment by including three areas in its networks: the Samaria National Forest in Chania which has been recognized as a World’s Biosphere Reserve, the UNESCO Global Geoparks of Psiloritis in central Crete, and Sitia in the east. The three regions have undertaken efforts in the field of education-information, research, and culture (constituents of UNESCO programs) which enhance the presentation of the natural and cultural environment and promote responsible tourism and the quality of life of residents and visitors.

The Region of Crete, in collaboration with the management bodies of the three UNESCO regions of Crete, has decided to proceed with a new type of tourism approach and promotion that will aim at alternative and thematic tourism and the sustainable development of the remote areas of Crete. This initiative, titled ‘UNESCO Regions of Crete’, envisions the utilization of the recognition by UNESCO that the three regions of Crete have achieved and the highlighting of the environmental and cultural values that it represents. Around these areas, the intangible wealth of our island’s cultural heritage is waiting to be discovered. Dozens of picturesque villages, countless Byzantine churches, monasteries with unique architecture. The authentic Crete is here.

TNH: What sustainable tourism initiatives is Crete implementing to protect its natural environment and promote eco-friendly practices?

SA: In the Region of Crete, through our integrated Strategic Planning for tourism, we are implementing an open cycle of interventions and initiatives, pointing out at every opportunity that the future of tourism is inextricably linked to sustainable development, with respect for the environment, society and people. In cooperation with tourism agencies at the local and national level, we are building a new image of Crete in terms of its identity in the international markets by utilizing new technologies and highlighting its natural and cultural heritage. At the same time, we support the regional model of tourism governance, including valuing human capital, balanced regional development, emphasizing comparative advantages, and highlighting quality and authenticity in approaching visitors. Nevertheless, the road to sustainable development is long, as at the level of institutions and infrastructure we are called upon as a country to deal with outstanding issues of the past.

This means that investment in new infrastructure and technologies is necessary, but with rules that will respect the environment, calculate the carrying capacity of each destination, and create scientific structures for the planning and monitoring of the tourist product as the central pillars for important decisions on the viability of the sector.

TNH: Could you share some insights into the local gastronomy of Crete? What are some must-try dishes for tourists?

SA: The authenticity and local character of gastronomy are comparative advantages for a destination that aims for holistic, sustainable social and economic development. They also remain the bridges of extroversion for a place that constantly upgrades its tourist product and enriches it through a strategy that highlights the uniqueness of experiences, as they are structured by the culinary communities, which in Crete create a strong cultural and tourist ID card. It is a powerful passport that establishes Crete as a place where geography meets tradition and the primary sector connects with tourism, two concepts that are closely related with Crete.

As a Region, through the utilization of all financial resources and the Strategy of Smart Specialization, and with the operation of the Agri-Food Partnership, we promote the cooperation of the productive bodies of Agri-Food, Scientific, and Research Institutions in order to jointly highlight the value of Cretan Food Culture, to introduce a series of actions and initiatives that mobilize local agencies and associations, and, of course, to promote the shift towards sustainable and quality agriculture.

For the gastronomy sector, we continue the course of strengthening and supporting every local initiative and mobilizing and supporting collaborations by actively supporting ‘Cretan Food Culture’. In this context, we are working intensively towards the creation of a social alliance for agri-food. We therefore have before us a great opportunity.

TNH: What opportunities exist for cultural exchange and interaction with the local community during a visit to Crete?

SA: Investment in culture is investment in tomorrow, investment in the future of this place. This is an unprecedented development process, as by highlighting elements from the sphere of the past you create conditions for a better future. The cultural capital of our country is thus transformed into an intangible development bank, capable of mobilizing human resources and capital, with the ultimate goal of investment and development.

And this, because culture cultivates and strengthens the feelings of identity, collectivity, creativity, and optimism, which are a necessary condition for improving the business environment and pushing the development process in the context of a cohesive, inclusive society. Greece, our islands, and Crete need all this today more than ever.

In the Region of Crete, we have understood that Culture can contribute to the creation of new professional employment opportunities, usually highly specialized in cutting-edge sectors, which additionally show high rates of youth employment.

In recent years, with Culture we have given a much stronger identity to our Tourism and with Tourism we gave a new, developmental dynamic to the utilization of our Culture. For this reason, through the implementation of our strategic planning, we proceeded to the creative interconnection of culture with tourism and the agri-food sector.

Based on this model, we believe that the concept of culture acts as a bridge of communication and interaction between the locals and the foreign visitors in Crete.

TNH: Noe, what message would you like to convey to potential visitors considering Crete as their next holiday destination?

SA: Crete opens its heart and is ready for another year to welcome and host in a unique and authentic way the millions of visitors from abroad. An island, an entire continent, as the tourists who visit our island say with emotion and filled with beautiful images for their return home. Our message reaches everywhere – to the five continents, to every corner of the planet. Hospitality, people, beauty, nature, freedom, joy, smiles, tastes, aromas. Like going around the world while being in one place, this is the place that today enters the new tourist season with great expectations. To all the friends of Crete from all over the world, we convey the message: We look forward to welcoming you to our island.

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