Olga Kefalogianni, Tourism Minister, Greece

Olga KefalogianniWhile Greece was off to a rocky start last year, a new government committed to cutting down the red tape, streamlining structures and promoting high-end development has given tourism a boost, and 2013 is off to a promising start.

Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Doug Gollan and Travel Editor Tova Syrowicz recently caught up with Greek Tourism Minister Olga Kefalogianni, who shed light on the future of tourism in what has always been one of the most strikingly beautiful destinations on the planet.

Elite Traveler: How long have you been the Greek minister of tourism?

Olga Kefalogianni: I’ve been in the post for a year. I’m also a member of parliament, and before I became minister, I practiced as a lawyer as well.

ET: Do you have any background in tourism?

Olga Kefalogianni: I am from Crete, where my father’s family owned hotels. Though I was raised in Athens, every year, we would spend three months in the summer in Crete, and I would live in a hotel. So I would say I have a tourism background in a very direct way.

ET: So you’ve been in office for a year. Can you give us the one-year recap?

Olga Kefalogianni: Let’s go back to the start of 2012, before I took office. The year had a really negative start, with the instability, the demonstrations. And then between May and June, between the two elections to get a stable government in place, there was a stalemate in reservations. So when I took office at the end of June, the outlook was really bleak, but with the new government in place, and the message of stability out, we were able to attract a lot of last-minute travelers and end the year quite satisfactorily. The decrease in visitors was a marginal 5 percent from 2011, which was a record year for arrivals, due in part to the diversion created by the Arab Spring.

ET: What about 2013?

Olga Kefalogianni: Our goal this year is for a comeback. And the data from the first five months indicates that we are in line to establish a new record for arrivals, which of course has a very positive effect on the economy.

ET: What’s the relation between tourism and GDP?

Olga Kefalogianni: Currently tourism is 18 percent of GDP, but we’re looking to grow GDP and expect the tourism percentage to grow too. McKinsey has projected this as well.

ET: What about average visitor spend?

Olga Kefalogianni: Total revenue is down, so part of our interest is in attracting the higher-end segment of the market. And we have the luxury developments to do so. An Aman opened last year, and there’s the Costa Navarino. At the tourism board, we are a one-stop shop for tourism investment.

ET: India requires more than 110 permits for a new hotel to open, whereas Singapore requires 11. Where does Greece fall in that range?

Olga Kefalogianni: We used to require 23, and now we’re down to five. With the new government, we’ve really focused on tackling bureaucracy and structural problems. Currently, of 20 investment projects in the pipeline, all have to do with the high end— resorts as well as special tourism structures, like golf and spa. Something new that we are offering is second homes. Of course, people can always go the real estate route, but for the first time we are offering luxury residences within a tourist complex. The Aman, for example, will have a residence component, as will the Costa Navarino. We’re not going mass-market on these, but rather keeping them very high-end.

ET: What are other parts of your core strategy?

Olga Kefalogianni: We’re looking to promote new destinations in Greece. To move beyond Athens, Mykonos and Santorini, which are known the world over, beyond Rhodes and Crete, which are well known in Europe. We have ski resorts, we have mountains, monasteries built into rocky peaks. Of course we have beautiful sea and sun, but we want to extend the season, to encourage thematic tourism as well. There are cultural routes that are becoming popular, like an Alexander the Great tour starting in the north, and religious tourism is very big…and not just for the Greek Orthodox, but for others too. The Japanese, for example, are very interested in Greece’s religious heritage. Wellness and spa is another draw—we have a wealth of natural thermal springs. Greek gastronomy and cuisine, another focus, plays into wellness. We have wonderful fruit, vegetables and fish. Greek wine, Greek olive oil, and certainly Greek yogurt, are making themselves known around the world.

ET: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Olga Kefalogianni: Tourism in Greece has certainly shown resilience, and while we are very popular among Europeans, we are also looking to other markets, including the Middle East and Asia. I should also mention that there are investment opportunities in state-owned properties as well, such as marinas located in particularly strategic locations. The largest marina in Athens, for example, is currently in the process of being privatized.