Is Greece ready to face the dramatic increase of tourist arrivals?

Is Greece able to face the challenge of the dramatic increase of tourist arrivals ? The future of Greek tourism looks gloomy for many realistic reasons.

One visit to the Cyclades is enough to see the impressive increase in the tourist flow. After all, Athens is also “sinking”, with the Acropolis receiving over 16,000 visitors daily.

Never before have there been so many direct flights from the USA, while there is no end to the celebrities of the world praising their visit to Greece. After two years of the pandemic, the 2019 arrivals record looks set to be broken: forecasts for August call for over a million visitors per week and the celebrations have begun, as if the success is due to our actions. So how are you?

Not necessarily. As we recently found out, the “restarted party” is accompanied by serious problems: from unrestrained reconstruction and unbearable traffic to water and sewage problems, the accumulation of garbage and the desperate inadequacy of infrastructure. Pathologies, in short, related to the “hypertourism” phenomenon.

It is not only the burden on the tourist destinations, it is also the alteration and possible depreciation of the tourist product and therefore the brand name of the country.

We are dealing with a classic case of the “tragedy of the commons”, as the myopic overexploitation of resources is called, leading precisely to their depletion and the ultimate destruction of those who make a living from them.

The problem is certainly not domestic. It is about the world’s popular tourist destinations. Local reactions are growing and restrictive measures have begun to be implemented, such as in Barcelona and Venice.

At the same time, the way infrastructure is managed is also changing. The same applies here as with cars, that is, the limitless development of infrastructure is ultimately a dead end because it leads to a continuous increase in their use.

The construction of, for example, a modern airport on an island of the Cyclades may facilitate the transition to it, but it multiplies the number of visitors, thus burdening all the other infrastructures.

The inevitable conclusion is that the logic of maximizing arrivals that has dominated until now is outdated. The triumphalisms about the high arrival numbers will soon take on a negative sign. We are moving to a different logic based on the management and eventual limitation of the tourist flow.

What next

A much deeper transformation of the tourism model is taking place before our eyes, a real paradigm shift. In place of mass tourism, a new model is emerging, aimed at very high incomes, VIP tourism.

This can easily be seen by visiting not Mykonos, but some Aegean islands with a completely different reputation, such as Naxos, Milos or Tinos.

There the sales of plots of land are experiencing an explosive rise, as are their prices. Thousands of building permits are issued and the villas being built have nothing to do with the country maisonettes and complexes of the recent past. We are talking about impressive buildings with an innovative minimalist aesthetic, cave palaces and huge haciendas with impressive gardens.

The large Greek architectural firms have turned almost exclusively to this market, where leading European architects also participate. The customers belong to the class of the very rich of the planet, people who live in Paris and Zurich, Los Angeles and New York.

The phenomenon is spreading rapidly throughout the Aegean, Ionian and Peloponnese, while it has already appeared in the mountainous country, for example in Zagoria. Inevitably, the services offered are also adjusted. A whole ecosystem has already appeared consisting of “villa managers”, private chefs, animators, special instructors for children, guides, etc., while traditional taverns give way to haute cuisine restaurants: ceviche displaces the village salad. Even the language is changing as the Greek language recedes.

This is a development that is visible in recent statistics. First of all, the composition of tourism income is changing. Based on the available data, it can be seen that the spending of visitors from abroad has increased this year by approximately 9% compared to the past. 4- and 5-star hotels and short-term rentals of luxury homes are thriving.

In contrast, lower-end accommodation and less attractive destinations are showing stagnation. In other words, it is a structural shift in the quality of inbound tourism towards the higher income brackets. Recognizing this trend, large foreign investment funds are feverishly buying disreputable and indebted hotel properties to turn them into hotels for high-income visitors, while the rental of luxury homes is also experiencing a corresponding surge.

Private flights

Perhaps most important is the dramatic increase in private jet arrivals. Private flights in the first seven months of 2022 to and from Eleftherios Venizelos Airport and the 14 regional airports managed by Fraport have increased by 40% compared to the corresponding period of the record year 2019. At Athens International Airport in the seven months this year there were 8,149 such flights compared to 4,866 in the corresponding period of 2019, an increase of 67%.

Collectively, these 15 airports have received more than 14,000 flights by the end of July – an average of three flights per hour every hour of the day and every day of the week.

If one includes the private flights to “Kazantzakis” airport in Heraklion, Crete and to other airports, such as Kalamata, then the number rises even more, not including private helicopter flights, which in Spata alone exceeded 2,500 of the beginning of the year.

As the availability of airports is not enough, space is sought at military airports! It’s literally about the jet set.

What is the significance of this development? As “luxury tourism” has been an elusive goal until recently, one could perhaps say that this development is a positive one, especially to the extent that it displaces mass tourism and assumes that the fledgling class of foreign owners will push for infrastructure and services, that are consistent with the value of their investments.

After all, they are the ones who mainly ask, e.g. in Paros, not to expand the airport to accept charter flights.

But things are not that simple. The main consequence of this development is the displacement of small and medium incomes from the most popular destinations.