Crete’s Nikos Igoumenidis on Emerging Trends and Sustainable Tourism
By Phil Butler, Analyst and Editor in Chief at Argophilia Travel News
Dr. Nikos Igoumenidis is a Heraklion, Crete native elected to the Hellenic Parliament to represent his region, home city, and Crete back in 2015. A cardiologist by profession, he's a former Director of Cardiology at the clinic of the University General Hospital of Heraklion (PAGNI), and currently responsible for tourism on behalf of SYRIZA parliamentary group. We had the privilege recently of discussing with Dr. Igoumenidis the character of Crete hospitality and tourism to come including emerging alternative tourism trends such as; wellness/medical tourism, cultural tourism, and the underdeveloped rural tourism niche. Here is what one of Crete's most respected and informed officials had to say on these subjects.
- Google just announced a new program to help small businesses on Crete "extend" the tourism season by "enhancing" their digital presence. This has been one goal for everyone promoting Crete the last few years, but questions remain as to the character of tourism to the island. Can you tell us your ideas on not just extending the season, but for improving the quality and economics of tourism to Crete?
Indeed, over the last three years there has been a sharp increase in the dynamics of Greek tourism, especially in Crete. The restoration of the image of the country abroad, the elimination of isolation, but also the opening up in new foreign markets to attract high-income visitors with high travel costs were crucial factors of that dynamic.
Google's intervention, to which you are referring, is not at all accidental, and, in my opinion, the same holds true for the recent investment of EUR 5 billion for the purchase of 42 aircrafts by a big airline in Greece. It is a very strong indication that Greece is being established as a safe international tourism pole in the Mediterranean. I believe that the establishment of an independent Ministry of Tourism - not as part of another Ministry as it was - leads also to the conclusion that tourism is at last a true pillar of the Greek economy and that a specific national tourism strategy is being adopted on a centralized basis.
This strategy concerns both quantitative and qualitative elements and, as far as Crete is concerned, the issue of the promotion of its particular identity - and especially the material and intangible elements - comes in, such as the natural environment, the paths, local architecture, the rural landscape, the family oriented and hospitable nature of tourism, authenticity, traditions, the Greek 'metron' (moderation), the archaeological sites and culture.
I think that the reasonable pressure exerted by all stakeholders - and to the extent that I have been following the matter - for including the Minoan Palaces in the cultural monuments of UNESCO is a symbolic and meaningful emergence of this aspect.
In such an environment, the next step is to promote incentives that will give impetus to "all-year-round tourism", which should focus, in my opinion, on the institutionalization of so-called "Special Local Seasonal Agreements", as the main field of exercising and implementing a seasonal extension strategy. These agreements - and possibly their pilot implementation in Crete - may include significant tax or labor incentives for the duration of the extension, such as the special tax treatment of business profits for all participating tourism businesses or reduced income tax on the earnings of employees in the respective tourism businesses.
- Alternative tourism is the biggest trends nowadays. Can you briefly discuss how you are engaged in assisting Crete hospitality providers to take advantage of touristic niches like: health tourism, cultural tourism, and other alternatives?
With respect to medical tourism, I can tell you, also as a coordinator of the SYRIZA Parliamentary Committee for Tourism, that the legal framework is about to be completed, especially regarding the issues of the Medical Tourism Providers Register, the provision of a Medical Tourism Mark, the manner of certifying the Medical Tourism Providers, the issue of covering the cost of foreign citizens receiving medical tourism services. Greece, and of course Crete, thanks to its excellent climate and high-level infrastructure and services offered by trained personnel and pioneering scientists, is an ideal medical destination.
Especially with respect to mineral springs, the problem of licensing of mineral springs businesses and facilities, where investments had been blocked in the past, is finally solved. I need only mention that the first operating permit to special tourism infrastructure providing therapeutic services was given in March 2017 to a hydrotherapy facility in Edipsos, and more will follow.
With respect to cultural tourism, in addition to the issue of including the Minoan Palaces in the UNESCO monuments, there are currently opportunities that have to be exploited and which are directly related to tourism in Crete.
I would like to mention the opportunities of including projects in the co-funded European programs of NSRF 2014-2020 to promote cultural tourism, the opportunities for using digital material for culture through the Greek Tourism Organization, and opportunities for the development of diving tourism (submarine museums and archaeological diving parks), after the approval of the environmental impact study for a diving park in Apokoronas under specific environmental and archaeological terms and conditions.
We could refer to many aspects of thematic tourism that are currently "unlocking" and are directly related to Crete. Allow me one more remark: Very recently, the Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization Taleb Rifai visited Greece, in a highly symbolic gesture, who, wherever he spoke, stressed Greece's current effort to promote tourism "365 days a year".
What I would like to say is that today, at the heart of the debates, at the heart of the proposals, of the research and studies, is the strategy of "extending the tourism season", which is unfolding in Greece, and this is of great importance.
- TripAdvisor just rated Crete one of the top 10 travel destinations in the world for 2018, but the problem for Crete businesses has always been profit margins. Can you talk about how parliament might better assist these businesses in increasing revenues so as to create a stronger business atmosphere on the island?
First of all, I would like to say that the consultation stage for the bill of the Ministry of Tourism regarding thematic tourism has been completed and the economic impact on the country's tourism is clear, especially for Crete. The bill will be introduced to the Parliament soon and, as far as Crete is concerned, includes a provision that adopts our proposal on the establishment of a Support Office at the Heraklion Airport "Nikos Kazantzakis", that is a separate structure both for staffing with experienced personnel and for day-to-day support of the passenger and tourism traffic of the Airport.
In the last two years, by adopting certain legislative regulations and in cooperation with the competent Ministries, a considerable number of businesses in all individual sectors of the tourism market whose operation had been hampered, were given breathing space while licensing and operating procedures were significantly simplified. More specifically, the outdated status of the tourism development control areas, which applied since 1989, was completely repealed. Hotels with up to three stars were given the opportunity to upgrade their category, modernize their infrastructure and join the NSRF programs, as they were not able to do so in the past although they were eligible.
Legislative arrangements have ensured the legal operation of a large number of accommodation establishments, campsites, hotels, tourism businesses, and set out the technical and operational specifications of organized tourism camps and mountain shelters.
I would also like to mention the recent legislation which, for the first time, expressly specifies the provision of tourism information by the Regional Tourism Services and the Tourism Support Offices, which can provide information and promote local specificities (with the help of municipalities and local councils).
Let me also tell you that you are absolutely right when you ask about business aid through tourism, but instead of focusing on profit margins, I would consider linking tourism to social efficiency and defending the value of work. I would like to say that today, workers, tourism professionals and local people must take the floor.
Beyond the legislative initiatives, the stable and healthy business environment in Crete is the first and foremost issue by establishing a regularity which is part of the country's effort to leave the stifle guardianship and exit the Memoranda of Understanding. The imminent completion of the 4th evaluation and the program generates a safe social and economic environment in Greece.
- We have been working with a few small municipalities on Crete to create rural tourism offerings. How important do you think it is to support the villages and smaller tourism entities?
In order to properly address your question, it is crucial to insist on a persistent and stable preventive policy in order for tourism consumption to also feed other areas, especially domestic production. As I have pointed out elsewhere, we can send the message that "Beyond the sun and the sea, there are also the local Cretan products."
The next priority must be given - and steps are already being taken to that effect - to link the established dynamics of tourism with Cretan agri-food, as one of the most healthy and quality characteristics of our country. Already remarkable are the related efforts, for example, with the Greek breakfast, while more and more agreements between producers and hoteliers are being locked in. The success and attraction of many tourism players to the recent "Pancretan Forum of Cretan Products" is not accidental.
The shifting of tourism interest in the hinterland is a challenge for the coming period, especially due to its enormous contribution to the productive reconstruction of Greece. It is indicative what the Prime Minister noted during his visit to Heraklion: "We have already launched and are currently implementing programs in Crete to promote the Cretan diet and agricultural products with a total budget of EUR 9.5 million". This is precisely where support for wine tourism, agritourism and gastronomic tourism is involved. The Government considers it crucial to link tourism to all productive activities and capabilities. In conclusion, tourism is not and cannot be cut off from the regions and pillars of productive reconstruction.
We learn from Dr. Igoumenidis' answers here a bit more about the complexity of optimizing sustainable and profitable tourism not only for Crete, but for any region or market. His efforts, and those of parliament in general, are directed at the appropriate major issues confronting all stakeholders on Crete from hotel owners to agricultural concerns. It's interesting to note here, that Crete is unique in its self-sufficiency when compared to other tourism destinations. But as Igoumenidis initiatives and ideas suggest, even the most flexible and popular destinations must start developing comprehensive and multifaceted solutions, collaboration, and support mechanisms for truly sustainable tourism. In short, the days of Greek tourism relying only on the sheer volume of tourists and Greece's popularity are gone.