The Southern Aegean probably provides more images of Greece to the world than any place besides the Acropolis. The National Herald, in a wide-ranging conversation with George Chatzimarkos, Governor of South Aegean Region, began by asking what accounts for the world’s fascination with those little islands.
George Chatzimarkos: There is a reason why we say about Aegean Islands: “Your real summer. Like no other.” All you want in a vacation is here, in the Cyclades and Dodecanese islands: The sun and the sea, endless beaches of every kind, prized gastronomy experiences, secluded areas, cosmopolitan resorts, historical sites, treasures of nature.
It is also a plus that in these unprecedented times, the Aegean Islands have proved as beautiful as always – and also safer than ever.
TNH: In addition to beautiful beaches, there are intriguing archaeological and historical sites on your islands – how is culture woven into the region’s tourism master plan?
GC: They say of the Aegean that wherever you’re standing, on beach or a mountainside, in a valley or in the woods – even in the sea – there’s a whole world of history beneath your feet.
The prehistoric ‘Pompeii’ of the Mediterranean can be found in the ancient town of Akrotiri on Santorini. The castles of the knights of medieval lore, the Palace of the Grand Master in Rhodes’ Old Town, protected by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site, the cave of St. Anne, where St. John wrote his Gospel and the Apocalypse, the Monastery of Patmos, the Church of the Virgin ‘Ekatontapyliani – the 100 doors – on Paros, Our Lady of Tinos, the Acropolis of Lindos, Venetian castles, the fascinating Cycladic figurines, dozens of museums, galleries of contemporary art, and traditional festivals – all these can be enjoyed on the islands of the south Aegean Sea.
The Aegean is not just a vast museum – it is pageant of human history over the centuries, vibrant and colorful. You can see it and feel it next to you as you walk, when swimming, when eating. You can touch it and eventually you become, not just one more observer, but a part of it. This is also the way we approach it in terms of marketing: a 360-degree experience which is all blended together.
TNH: Tell us about what you love about the place(s) you were born and raised in the Aegean.
GC: I was born and raised in Rhodes of the Dodecanese, a cluster of twelve islands at the southeastern edge of the Aegean. The Dodecanese form a bridge between Europe and the East. Everywhere you go, you’ll see traces of peoples and cultures that have made their mark over the centuries: Ionians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans, and Italians. What I personally hold from my childhood in Rhodes is the freedom and carelessness of playing outside, under the sun, against the most beautiful backdrop made by the architecture of the centuries and the Greek light. Later on, as the governor of the Region of South Aegean, I have been traveling and spending a lot of time in the Cyclades, where I am still dazzled by the pure white villages, the golden beaches, the crystal clear azure water.
TNH: The Mediterranean diet is now world renowned – what is the South Aegean’s version and which islands have cuisine that stands out?
GC: Gastronomy has its very own special place in the South Aegean Region. Foodies from all over the world have good reason to visit the Aegean Islands as they have the chance to enjoy local specialties that brilliantly combine traditional and modern tastes. I am proud to mention that the South Aegean received the title ‘European Region of Gastronomy 2019’ as a result of a strong showing at a competition among the other European regions.
It is true without exaggeration that every single island from Dodecanese and Cyclades has a rich culinary tradition and cuisine with famous and local products with designation of origin. Actually, on every island, the cuisine is so different that this heterogeneous approach to a related gastronomic culture is amazing: flavors with the same DNA, but so unique and special. The reason? The rare products grown by hard-working producers, carefully quality controlled by craftsmen, conscientiously cooked by traditional and modern cooks in cafes, tavernas, and restaurants. The cuisine of the Aegean offers generously, flavors with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO): tomatoes and fava from Santorini, potatoes from Naxos, gruyere San Michalis from Syros, buffalo cheese from Lipsi, kopanisti from Mykonos, wine Malagouzia from Paros, Assyrtiko wine from Santorini, and local varieties from Rhodes, Kos, Leros, and Lipsi – all of them true experiences, that are worth passing from … mouth to mouth.
And there are many more rare delicacies that challenge you to explore them: Tinos artichoke, salted fish from Leros, melekouni from Rhodes, beans from Katavia in Rhodes, Andros volaki cheese, and Milos pellets, Schinousa and Koufonisia wild goats, sitaka from Kasos and Karpathos, Kythnos macaroons, Anafi boiled cheese, Ios cheese, Kea and Kimolos sour cheese. The raw materials of this cuisine are the thyme honeys of Serifos and Sikinos, the gylomeni manouri cheese of Siphnos, the wild herbs of Folegandros and Heraklia, the Psimeni of Amorgos, the sun-dried octopuses of Antiparos, the xinomizithra of Donoussa, salt from Symi, and of course extra virgin olive oil from Rhodes. Ingredients with a strong temperament are transformed into dishes that are indelibly imprinted on the taste buds. Some of the most beautiful souvenirs of our place will be your taste memories, which are not easily forgotten: fluffy fruit, marvelous mostras, awesome meats, savory fish, fine-grained savory pies, sweet and salty cheese pies, unrepeatable macaroons, and honeydew pastels. The list is so long. I know of many whose names are unknown words to you, all here waiting for you to discover them.
TNH: Being away from the mainland, islands have unique challenges. Tell us about priority infrastructure projects, for example, water, electricity, transportation.
GC: The development of the South Aegean Region has occurred over the years on a broad front, tackling a wide range of issues as a result of the proper use of available resources: national, European Union, and private investment.
Rapid implementation of the projects, the most efficient absorption nationwide of available funds for the road network, healthcare facilities, schools, sports infrastructure, transportation, energy and other infrastructure, works to protect the environment, agricultural works, efforts to create an attractive investment environment, all were prioritized and balanced with actions supporting tourism, culture, and sport.
Supporting the economy of the islands and strengthening their competitiveness is a constant priority, along with initiatives and actions that safeguard social cohesion.
As a result of this mode of operation, at the end of 2020, even with an ongoing pandemic and during a lockdown, in the South Aegean, there were 112 active construction sites – 53 in the Cyclades and 59 in the Dodecanese. The pandemic was a time of sowing for the future and work that has no precedent for the South Aegean.
For the first time, throughout the islands of the South Aegean, there is a major intervention to upgrade the road network with a budget that exceeds 75 million euros.
We are also acting on a new philosophy in flood protection in the South Aegean Region which also includes the establishment of three-year contracts for the cleaning of streams. With this new framework, the public administration is overcoming the frustrations of the delays of the past and we are preventing new problematic situations. The South Aegean is one of the first regions of the country that took the political decision to establish a South Aegean Development Organization, in order to accelerate the growth rate in all the islands and to overcome obstacles that could have left billions of the Recovery Fund untapped.
South Aegean islands are back open for business.
TNH: How is the South Aegean region addressing the pandemic and preparing for visitors this year?
GC: Our planning for the recovery of tourism is multilevel and we would say that it moves on three main axes: the health shielding of destinations, the unified coordination of the tourism product, and flexibility in the strategy for the promotion the South Aegean.
From the first day of the pandemic, in the South Aegean Region, we emphasized the health and safety of our citizens and redirected our resources to the strengthening of the health system. Twenty-one million euros have been allocated to Healthcare, from European and local sources, and the region has shown unprecedented responsiveness through its initiatives to reduce the spread of the virus.
There are molecular testing machines at all island hospitals, free and easily accessible rapid tests for all citizens, provisions for free and safe airlifts on the EKAB islands, a telemedicine consultation program, isolation wards at hospitals and health centers, and critical equipment, as well as modern respirators – all part of the Regional Government’s contribution to the fight against coronavirus.
In terms of promotion and advertising, all those components and tools were selected that ensure maximum flexibility. Flexibility was the key to responding to an ever-changing international environment and markets when it comes to every euro invested in advertising and promotion.
Finally, and this is something that happened for the first time in Greece, in the unprecedented summer of 2020, we presented a united voice as a destination, both internationally and domestically, creating the South Aegean Tourism Initiative by merging commercial, social actors, and local government. It is a project that, because it succeeded and secured positive publicity for the destinations, we continue aggressively this year as well – we will repeat successful actions from last year's unprecedented tourist season such as the education of people, employees, and employers in the Health Protocols, free of charge and online for everyone.
We also proposed the establishment of COVID hotels, which was adopted by the Ministry of Tourism. We exhausted all effort with respect to our responsibilities.
Beyond that, however, planning for tourism opening and health shielding and management also remains a priority of the country's central government. This is, in my opinion one of the reasons that Greece has done better in managing the pandemic, than other European countries with historically better organization and public administration.
TNH: Greece is more and more successful in presenting visits there as more than just ‘sea and sun’ – what are some attractions the southern Aegean offers outside of the summer season – for example, we know that Siphnos has become popular for its hiking paths.
GC: With more than 300 days a year of sunshine and warm temperatures, Aegean Islands are always in season.
Besides, nature, history, gastronomy, and culture are not seasonal. Everyone can taste it every single day, and to tell you the truth, some of the experiences are even better off season, such as hiking routes which are better enjoyed during off peak months.
Our cultural heritage and monuments do not close during winter. In a nutshell, benefiting from an excellent Mediterranean climate, the Aegean islands are an ideal holiday destination all year round. In the winter, visitors can enjoy famous locations such as Santorini and Mykonos islands, and literally see them a new light. The towns of the larger islands, like those of Rhodes, are splendid short-break destinations thanks to their unique atmosphere, culture, traditions, and sights. Other islands like Siphnos, Tinos, Andros, Karpathos are hiking paradises. Kalimnos is a world class destination for climbers, while other islands like Amorgos are great for divers – not to mention all the possibilities marine and sea tourism lovers have in the Cyclades and Dodecanese complexes – wonderful island hopping experiences.
It is beyond doubt that all islands boast a plethora of gems worth exploring enjoying.
The Dodecanese and Cyclades islands mean so much more than sea and sun – they offer an intriguing combination of culture, history, gastronomy, and outstanding beauty, worth exploring all year round.
TNH: What is your concluding message to Diaspora Greeks and their non-Greek friends?
GC: In our islands, ‘philoxenia’ – the Greek word for hospitality – is literally in our blood.
Those of you who have been with us before, are aware of our fervent dedication to providing a holiday experience like no other. Now, more than ever before, we also have a firm commitment to take all required measures to enable you enjoy your stay safely.