Greek tourism minister believes the country will benefit as tourists are put off visiting the Middle East.
Greece’s tourism minister has dismissed fears that the ongoing migrant crisis will put Britons off visiting next year – and promised that the cost of holidays will not be adversely affected by recent VAT hikes.
The latest figures show an 11 per cent increase in visitor numbers to Greece between January and August, compared with the same period last year, with arrivals from the UK rising by a quarter. A total of 25 million tourists are expected to visit in 2015, up from 22 million in 2014 – all despite the country’s economic struggles and the tide of refugees that has threatened to overwhelm several popular holiday islands, including Kos and Lesbos.
Of course the problem is not going away, she adds. Indeed, this week the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said around 210,000 migrants made the perilous sea crossing to Greece in October – more than during the whole of 2014. But she said the situation is firmly under control.
“There is no issue for tourists now and there will be no issue next year. The refugees are identified in a fixed place, just outside of the main town, and then they get the boat to the mainland.”
Kountoura expects Greece to welcome even more holidaymakers in 2016, thanks in part to unrest and fears over terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia is now off-limits to Britons, following the massacre of 38 tourists in Sousse and 22 in Tunis, Turkey has seen bombings and unrest, and Egypt’s problems appear perpetual – the grounding of flights to and from Sharm El Sheikh, following last week’s air crash in the Sinai, being just the latest.
A poll last month suggested that three in four British holidaymakers (and half of Telegraph Travel readers) are now actively avoiding Muslim countries.
“It’s sad that Britons don’t feel secure, and many tour operators have told me this week [at World Travel Market] that they are very worried about next year after everything that has happened. But certainly all the traditional Mediterranean destinations – Greece, Italy, Spain – will benefit.”
A major draw for Britons when it comes to Greece is value for money, believes Kountoura. But economic pressures have seen the country’s government increase VAT on restaurant meals and hotel stays and entry fees to tourist attractions like the Acropolis Museum in Athens, where it has risen from €12 to €20. How might that affect affordability?
“The pound has strengthened against the euro, which will more than offset the rise in VAT. Greece will be even cheaper for British visitors next year. Our museum prices were among the lowest in Europe, Oil prices are down, making flights cheaper, and the pound has strengthened against the euro, which will more than offset the rise in VAT. Greece will be even cheaper for British visitors next year. We had to make them more realistic, and I think the increases are relatively small.”
Nevertheless, the country is looking for added incentives to keep UK holidaymakers coming. Major new resorts are planned and it is marketing some of Greece’s little-known destinations. This year’s Abta Travel Convention, for example, was hosted by a cluster of new five-star hotels on a strip of shoreline now billed as the “Costa Navarino”, and next summer Thomas Cook will include Thassos, in the northern Aegean, in its brochures for the first time.
So is the traditional Greek holiday – rustic villa, unspoiled beach, cat-filled taverna – under threat? No, says Kountoura. “We are very aware of what makes Greece such a great place to visit and we want to keep the experience authentic. We’ll go slowly, not like Spain,” she said, referencing the unchecked arrival of mass tourism there in the 1960s.
“There are more than 200 inhabited islands in Greece, most of which are practically unknown. That’s more than enough room to grow without spoiling the environment.”