Interview: New Greek tourism minister declares 'We're back in business'

Interview: New Greek tourism minister declares 'We're back in business'

Greece is back in business. That’s the message from Greece’s new tourism minister, Olga Kefalogianni, the country’s first dedicated minister for the sector since 2009.

She forms part of the country’s new government after a period of political and economic instability, including two elections, that was largely responsible for what Kefalogianni calls a “stalemate” in holiday bookings to Greece.

“Holidaymakers were a bit reluctant to come to Greece and we saw that in the bookings in the months of the election campaigns and during the elections,” she said.

“But our message is that it is back to business for Greece. There is great value for money, holiday prices are competitive and we still offer very good quality.

“We now have political stability and we want to encourage people to choose Greece.”

Surge in bookings

Bookings have risen since the new government took power. A more settled political climate,  fewer negative headlines and the favourable exchange rate are also helping to stimulate bookings.

Operators have reported a surge in Greece holiday sales over the past fortnight, with a substantial rise in average sales values for last-minute departures.

However, UK bookings to the country remain about 9% down due to the recent instability and negative publicity.

UK promotions

The message that Greece is back in business will be welcome news to operators after months of pleas, including a letter signed by Abta and the Association of Independent Tour Operators urging the government to fund campaigns to kick-start the market.

Talks are finally under way with operators on campaigns to boost sales in the lates market, with some promotions already agreed, according to the minister.

Kefalogianni is tight-lipped on how much will be spent but said marketing would be “targeted”.

“It’s important to use our small means towards very targeted campaigns,” she said.

Already the destination has had to be more creative to raise the destination’s profile in a cost-effective way. Its recent True Greece Twitter campaign urged consumers to counter negative publicity about the country that was “unfair and exaggerated”, according to Kefalogianni.

Niche markets

Greece hopes to increase visitor numbers by focusing on a variety of niche markets, including golfing and yachting holidays, conferences and incentive travel, medical tourism, sustainability and cruising.

Kefalogianni hopes to encourage cruise lines to moor ships in Greece and feature more ports in the country in their 2014 programmes. “We see great potential in this area and it’s important for us to develop,” she said.

Sustainable tourism will also be highlighted with a focus on new eco-friendly hotels and the promotion of unspoilt areas.

Reducing VAT

The new government has already stated its aim to reduce VAT on food and beverages back to 13% after it was raised to 23% last year, and is also considering cutting VAT on hotels and restaurants to bolster tourism.

Kefalogianni is hopeful that VAT on food and beverages will be reduced by the end of this year but any further reductions are likely to take longer as they require agreement from the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund.

“Consumption [of food and beverages] has gone down by 40% so we have a good argument for this to be reduced,” she said.

A reduction in VAT would lead to a drop in prices, she said, adding: “The destination would become even more appealing.”

Looking ahead

Kefalogianni remains optimistic about future bookings but would not reveal any predictions on whether UK tourist arrivals will meet or exceed last year’s figure. “There is still time to catch up on bookings,” she said.

What she is keen to point out is how important the UK tourism market is to Greece, reflected by the fact she chose the UK over Germany for her first official visit.

“The UK is the second-largest tourism market to Greece, but

in terms of importance it is number one.

“We have strong ties with the British market.”

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