Regional governor of the South Aegean, George Hatzimarkos.
The Greek tourism market is seeing a remarkable recovery and while it is most obvious in Athens – that’s where the media is – the powerful signs include the packed ferries and planes that connect with the islands of the South Aegean, with their iconic whitewashed houses that are what most people outside Greece think about when they contemplate visiting. The islands are ready and most welcoming. The National Herald spoke to the regional governor of the South Aegean, beginning the conversation with the factors he thinks are playing a role in this year’s success and last year’s initial recovery.
George Hatzimarkos: If the saying ‘every challenge is an opportunity’ is true, then the Greek tourism market is evidence of it. Greece has won the race towards tourism recovery in Europe and the Region of South Aegean is the ‘most valuable player’ in that contest. Looking at the numbers, in 2021 we had more than 3 million visitors and over 22,000 international direct flights to our five international airports, on Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos, Santorini, and Karpathos. What is more important is that the Cyclades and Dodecanese earned the highest income per stay and total revenue, backing up the income and the recovery of the Greek economy nationally. There are so many reasons to be proud of the previous season, as smaller islands achieved a season far better than even in 2019, which was one of the best in recent history. Last year 18 markets had performed better than 2019, with visitors from countries like Poland, France, Denmark appearing as very bright surprises. We also welcomed new markets that we did not have before, and our destinations stayed open until November 15, giving us a solid ground to build on for even bigger seasons in the future.
That victory means significant growth, income, employment, and optimism for our islands. With no doubt I believe that last year as well as this year, we received back the trust that we gained over the handling of the pandemic.
2022 seems even more dynamic and promising too. All signals – arrivals and bookings – promise a very prosperous season for the Cyclades and Dodecanese, which by the way started this year sooner than ever before. In March and April the numbers were really high, particularly during Western and Orthodox Easter. We are very optimistic about 2022 and as we say in Greek “a good beginning brings a good ending.”
TNH: Tell us what is special about the Aegean islands? What surprises will visitors find in the Cyclades and Dodecanese?
GH: The South Aegean, the Cyclades and the Dodecanese include some of the most significant tourist destinations and renowned brand names, worldwide, such as Rhodes, Kos, Santorini, and Mykonos. There are also hidden gems, little dots on the Aegean Sea, such as Symi, Tilos, Chalki, Kastellorizo – an island complex of destinations of singular and transcendent beauty. They are so close to each other, yet so different, and they offer a feast of experiences, emotions, and thrills.
The contrasts, on Rhodes and in the whole of the Dodecanese and the Cyclades, are their charm and uniqueness is their identity. The list of the island’s attractions is endless: The renowned and glorious Greek light, clear waters, the local marble and stone, castles, forts, monasteries, and villages where time stands still, windmills, islets flooded with butterflies and sea sponges. There is also the gastronomic journey through the rich traditions and evolution of the Mediterranean diet. Countless beaches that allow you the luxury of endless choices are waiting for you, a variety of beaches ranging from calm and remote to cosmopolitan and full of action, just like the islands themselves.
Aegean islands are not only about sun and beautiful beaches, however, they are History. They are Culture. They are the footprints that each place has left along the European and world-historical path. This is a ‘path’ in time that is worth ‘walking’ for every visitor.
TNH: That is a remarkable smorgasbord, indeed, a veritable feast. How are you promoting the tourism offerings, across the islands, particularly with an eye on digital nomads, health and wellbeing tourism, weddings, adventure, sport, and gastronomical tourism?
GH: I believe that no other region has worked as hard as ours on building fame and putting out content on different topics. We have co-organized several European and international events, including more than 40 championships in many different sports. We also work very hard on culture, supporting big cultural events, from exhibitions to concerts to theatrical plays. We accommodate international film festivals, such as Anima Syros, which is one of the biggest events in the world for the animation industry. We also work very hard in the field of For 2019, we were the gastronomical capital of Europe, but we never stopped. After winning that title, we continued supporting the industry at the same pace, bringing out the local cuisine and promoting a network of restaurants under the name of ‘Aegean Cuisine’. As a region, we have participated in the European Young Chef contest. During the past six years we have won the title three times. This year, we participated and won a prize at an international contest promoting local producers and local products, the World Food Gift Challenge, that took place in Menorca. We strongly support all the themes and areas that we can build upon to create a holistic experience for our visitors. And we want our visitors to think of us as a place beyond sea and sun. Be it history, culture, gastronomy, sports, or anything else, the Aegean islands can accommodate any visitors’ interests. The vast majority of the people that visited the South Aegean islands last year had an absolutely wonderful time. This is the biggest inheritance for us, as they are all willing to come again and spend more time in Greece.
TNH: To expand on this topic, market studies have shown tourists increasingly looking for cultural, historic, and gastronomical experiences. What programs do you have in place or are looking to expand to create an appreciation among visitors for the unique culture and heritage of the region?
GH: We are using a very big percentage of the European funding that we have as a region to renovate major archeological and historical sites all over the islands. All the islands have multiple interesting sites, and a large number of renovations are taking place. We are always trying to invite and host prestigious cultural events. We have some very nice ancient theaters around the islands – a wonderful ancient theater in Kea, in a place called Korthi, and another theater that was recently renovated through European funding on the island of Milos. We have a unique medieval city in Rhodes which is one of UNESCO’s world heritage monuments where there is the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights, which is also something unique in Europe to see and is frequently open for concerts and plays.
The great news for Rhodes is that the Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced himself the funding for restoring and renovating the iconic National Theater of Rhodes through the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. The imposing theater on Town Hall Square was designed and built in 1937 by Italian architect Armando Bernabiti. Known at the time as the Teatro Giacomo Puccini, it is a classic example of the International Style of architecture, incorporating the use of glass bricks masonry. Upon opening, it was regarded as one of the best, state-of-the-art theaters in Greece, suitable for staging large opera performances. By working together, the central government, the Region, and the municipality of Rhodes managed to make this dream of the Rhodians come true. It is a unique monument, which we aspire to turn into a cultural center. Once completed, it will upgrade the island of Rhodes and become a year-round attraction.
TNH: Infrastructure projects on the mainland are at the center of the news these days – tell us about infrastructure projects that are in progress and that are planned for Cyclades, such as energy, transportation – including sea planes, etc.
GH: We really want our islands to be at the forefront of what is happening around the world. We want to be present and not just sit back and watch. Being part of this huge global transformation is key for us.
‘The Rhodes Co-Lab,’ a pioneer program launched by the Region of South Aegean and Touristik Union International (TUI), the international tourism leader, captures our vision for the green and digital transformation of the entire chain of services and stakeholders related to tourism on Rhodes within the next five years. The Rhodes Co-Lab’s goal is to create a leading example for the sustainable tourism of the future through a holistic approach.
The ‘Astypalea smart & sustainable island’ project as well is a groundbreaking joint initiative of the Greek state, trying to make our islands carbon-free. That means that we want to produce all the energy needed for the islands through renewable energy sources. We have already planned, along with the Ministry of Energy, a public tender for a renewable energy plant on Astypalea. We also work with the Volkswagen Group. We need their technology and their know-how, aiming to promote e-vehicles and e-mobility, but to also introduce something quite innovative, on-demand mobility services. That is a very big experiment for the entire world but especially for us. In Chalki, we launched the program ‘GR-eco island’, which signifies the commencement of the energy transition for that tiny island. We have established an energy community owned by the inhabitants of the island – we have already competed a photovoltaic park there that will be owned and operated by the people of the island. In Chalki we also enjoy the help of many other automotive companies, like Peugeot and Citroen.
In terms of waste treatment, our Prime Minister suggested that the state establish a company that would be responsible for waste treatment throughout the islands. It is a huge initiative, and we are in the first year of this company, of which I have the honor of being its CEO. We have made huge progress, having already concluded the plan for all the islands. We are now preparing five big plants for mechanical treatment, and we have already finished the plans for the biggest recycling program that has ever been implemented in Greece. We intend to invest millions of euros and we have applied for European funding for that project, so that we can turn a new page and introduce new ways to treat waste on the islands. It is a huge effort and despite the fact that we are in the very first year, the results are very promising. It is only a few days ago that I came back from Tilos island, where we presented the project ‘Just Go Zero Tilos,’ which is turning Tilos into the first ‘zero waste’ island.
TNH: We are seeing the continued development of new hotels and resorts, and the purchase of villas through the Greek golden visa program for foreign investors. What would be your message about investment opportunities in the region to our international audience? Why are you optimistic about the region’s investment and growth potential?
GH: A main challenge around the islands is accessibility. In the last two years, during a quite challenging fiscal period, we had the best maritime connections in our history. Now we have started building a network of 28 sea planes and we want to introduce as soon as possible sea planes that will connect the islands with the mainland as well as with each other. The South Aegean region has made plans for 28 islands to have sea planes and there is significant interest from global airlines to be involved. We are also very optimistic that 18 months from now we will have the network up and running. Of course, we can have a few of them operating in 2022. There is also significant interest from other global funds to invest in our islands, mainly in tourism. However, owning real estate is also a very big opportunity around the islands. Infrastructure, public, and private projects are going to be a very big endeavor over the next three years. The energy field is very interesting as well, and we want to also open the maritime sector for global investors. We are designing a new plan on ways to make the South Aegean islands to be the hub for the Mediterranean cruise industry. In a month from now we will have completed our studies to finalize the plan. We also want to build a new administrative environment for the maritime sector as we have 118 ports in our region. We have already established a new program to support all the infrastructure projects we need to do around these ports, along with the Maritim Ministry. We want to participate in the transformation of the global economy.
In all these contexts, we know that we can count on the patriotism and dynamism of the Greek-American community. Given this opportunity, I also want to put out a special thank you, because it is very important for us to know that there is another Greece outside our borders.
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