Dec 2019 Interview with Mr. George Hatzimarkos, Governor of South Aegean Islands
Prisma Reports: South Aegean is one of Greece’s 13th administrative regions, including the Cyclades and Dodecanese island groups in the central and south-eastern Aegean Sea. To start with, how would you introduce the region to the readers of Foreign Policy? Can you give us a rapid overview of the South Aegean, what are some of the most important economic sectors and industries, and how does the region contribute to the economy of Greece?
George Hatzimarkos: The South Aegean region is the biggest insular region in Europe, with 48 inhabited islands. The region is responsible for 40% of all incoming tourism in Greece, and is the heart of Greek tourism. Most people around the world know of Rhodes, Mykonos and Santorini, but do not know that these islands belong to the South Aegean region because this is something that is only interesting to the Greeks.
95% of all local GDP in the South Aegean Region comes from tourism. This is very unique. You will not be able to find another place in the world that generates all its income from one sector of the economy. According to Bank of Greece 95.1% of our local GDP come from tourism, according to their latest figures. For us, life and economy here is about tourism. We live and breathe tourism. The big islands like Rhodes, Mykonos and Santorini account for 60% of all 5-star hotels of Greece. Rhodes alone represents 14% of all hotels in Greece.
Prisma Reports: What has been the performance of South Aegean’s tourism sector in 2019? What are the key trends that you are observing, as well as the main priorities and challenges in that sector?
George Hatzimarkos: We had a series of 3 record years – 2017, 2018 and 2019, in terms of arrivals and spending. We had a record number of the average spending per visitor in Greece, as well as arrivals and hotel occupancy. We generated more than €4 billion from tourism alone in 2018. This is our contribution towards the Greek economy.
In my opinion, tourism is the only sector that was alive in the Greek economy even during the crisis. It gave us income and hope. We’re very happy that we contributed in such an important way to keep this country alive. I would say that the South Aegean region is the main reason why the Greek economy didn’t collapse during the crisis. We are very proud to say that.
What we’re trying to do now is to introduce the other islands like Patmos, Naxos, Paros, Karpathos and many others to the world, in addition to our famous star islands Mykonos and Santorini. We call them the hidden gems of the South Aegean. The world should look out for these hidden gems because whatever the visitor is looking for in a vacation, he or she can find it in the South Aegean Region. Each island has its own personality, character and identity which provides opportunities for visitors to spend their time in any way they like. Whether one is looking for a quieter time on a deserted beach, good and authentic food, nightlife, sports or activities like climbing and diving, they can find it here. From island to island, you can find all that you are looking for.
We have invested a lot in the last years in gastronomy and are proud to say that it is the first time ever that a public entity is doing such a professional job in this sector in Greece. We’re the first Greek region to have won the title of “European Region of Gastronomy” in 2019. We worked a lot in 2016 to build a budget and are glad that we made it and of course, very proud that all the islands participated. It was a big celebration for us, and we had events all around the region.
We are also very proud that we tried to involve the next generation. We encouraged young people to be trained because according to our research food is one of the main reasons a traveller chooses where to go. Food ranks number 1 out of the 10 most important reasons why a traveller would pick a certain destination. That’s why we decided to invest in gastronomy. It was a big success and we even won the award for the European Young Chef twice – once in 2016 and once more in 2019. The European Young chef was from the island of Rhodes.
We also built a network with other European regions like Catalonia and Lombardy. We want to persuade the owners of restaurants to present the food as part of their history, culture and tradition because we understand that travellers look for authenticity. We want to start a new chapter. Back in the 90s, most of the people around the islands believed that they had to suit the palates of visitors. They tried to cook French food for French visitors, but this is wrong because these are not what travellers are looking for. We will never cook better French food than the French, but we can cook better Greek food than everybody else.
A plate that is delivered on a table is not only about food but also about the history, traditions, hard work of the farmers and culture of the place. This also helped the producers around the island because their products found a market and the visitors could come very close to the farmers. This has been a key trend of tourism around the islands for the past years and I think that people around the world have started worrying about food more and have started movements. Hence, it was the right time to deal with that issue in a professional way. I’m very proud that we did it successfully.
Prisma Reports: The Ministry of tourism has big plans to revamp the sector, including promoting Greece as a year-round destination. What is your strategy to develop 4 season tourism in the region?
George Hatzimarkos: Not all our islands are suitable for year-round tourism. We began promoting year-round tourism in the islands which had the infrastructure, like Santorini for example. We started a small program three years ago in Santorini to extend the season, which was a very successful pilot test. Now, we’re approaching this step by step and are starting to carry out the same project in Rhodes. The next island we will try this with is Kos. Kos is the 4th top destination in Greece. It’s a very big island and the weather there in the winter is wonderful.
What we’re trying to do now is work with the operators of our airports. Four of Greece’s biggest international airports – Rhodes, Kos, Santorini and Mykonos – are now operated by Fraport. There are huge investments being made in these airports. They’re going to be totally new and modern. The airport in Rhodes will be ready in February 2020. In 2021, there will be brand new airports in Kos, Mykonos and Santorini. This is very important to us because with Fraport, we can work together to attract international travellers. The season in Kos is 6 months and we hope to extend it to 9 months. The goal for Mykonos is the same. In Rhodes, things are even easier because it is well known around Europe. Rhodes is connected with direct flights to over 50 European cities during the summer period, making it very accessible.
Prisma Reports: What is your strategy to overcome over tourism in the region?
George Hatzimarkos: I hear this term but I’m not sure I understand what it means. This is a term which has only been heard around the world in the last 5 years. I think this conversation started in Venice. We have nothing to do with that. I actually don’t find this phenomenon anywhere in Greece. I have seen many articles about over-tourism in Santorini, but that is not true because from what I understand, over tourism is a phenomenon that is stable. We don’t have this problem.
It is not over tourism If the island is only crowded for 3, 4 or 5 days a year, not during a specific hour of the day. This is only a matter of building a better infrastructure. This is the problem of the public sector in Greece because the public sector is very slow here. The fiscal problems and bureaucracy make public sectors slow. The private sectors were moving quickly in the last years to follow the rhythm of the economy, but the public sector could not keep up. If we manage to keep this in a healthy balance, we can overcome this very small and well supported problem in destinations like Santorini.
Prisma Reports: Americans are a highly desired tourism group, having a much higher per capita spending rate than other tourists. Recently the region hosted an American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) delegation. What are your strategies to grow the region’s appeal for American tourists and visitors in particular?
George Hatzimarkos: Over the last four years, we tried to change the outlook of the international travellers on the islands. It’s not only sun and sea. We push forward the personality of the islands, culture, sports and gastronomy. Culture is a source that the islands can thrive on, especially in places like Tilos, which is right next to Mykonos, or Kos which has a history of Hippocrates, the father of Medicine. Rhodes of course is the island where the capital of the world was for 3 centuries, where all the Roman emperors and universities were.
When it comes to sports, we attracted more than 24 world championships last year. We offer that in shoulder months like March, April, October and November. We offer water sports, chess, climbing and anything you can imagine.
We also think about how to make it easier for travellers to go island hopping. US visitors love island hopping. We started a huge project to make island hopping easy for the visitors, building the biggest network of sea drones in the world. We designed a network of 34 islands where we have sea drones. In about a year, we will be ready to have our first flights with hydroplanes connecting one island to the next. These projects are run by the regions. We tried to design and implement it but is difficult in Greece because of the bureaucracy. However, we are very optimistic that in a year from now, it will be ready because the new government and prime ministers is very supportive. He helps us a lot in implementing these projects.
Very soon, it will be even easier and more enjoyable for people from the US who want to travel around the islands.
Prisma Reports: The New Democracy party has vowed to restart big infrastructure projects stalled across the country, such as the Hellenikon project, Kassiopi in Corfu and many others. What are South Aegean’s needs in terms of infrastructure development plans? What are the major projects and sectorial investments considered to enhance its connectivity?
George Hatzimarkos: The first successful investment project already implemented is in the South Aegean region. It is an American investment by a company called Onex Shipyards, who now runs the shipyards of Thira and Syros, which is the capital of the region. We work very closely with the Greek government and the embassy of the US in Greece. This is an example of a successful US investment in Greece and we were very happy about it.
The next big project we are working on is building a golf club in Rhodes. It is called the Afandou project, and will be a huge project. The Afandou project is actually about the first golf course in Greece located on a very nice beach in Rhodes. The project is run by a US company, owned by a Greek American.
There is huge interest from around the world to invest in tourism in the islands. In the last period, we had an investment from four seasons in Mykonos. For us, the challenge is to work on maritime. Our new plans with the new government of Greece are to invest heavily in our ports to attract more cruise ships, yachts and maritime in general. This is a very big next challenge for the islands and for Greece too. We are now working closely with the government to build a new legal framework to allow big investments to come in more easily and be implemented and guide these investments in our ports. We have 118 ports in our region. This is a very big opportunity not just for the islands but also for Greece.
Prisma Reports: Recently you received US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, to discuss opportunities for more investment in the region, opened up by the revival of #Neorion. Concretely, what are the top 5 reasons why to come to South Aegean islands?
- Investors will find an ally who respects them. We support the projects in every way we can for the benefit of our investors, the Greek economy and the local society.
- Investors have here a huge chance of success because we have decades of experience especially in tourism, and the destinations are very well positioned in the markets around the world.
- With the new government, the whole financial environment is improving and is friendlier for investors.
- Investments are not only about money and profits, but also serve to build bridges between nations that share common values and interests.
- When investing in the South Aegean region, investors know that they’re investing in the most important and strategic geo-political location on earth, especially in times like these.
Prisma Reports: Are you looking at diversifying the economy, aside from tourism? Are you looking at developing other sectors like I.T., ship repair, etc?
George Hatzimarkos: We have tried to diversify in many ways but judging from the results, it looks like our plans have failed. This is only because the demand from people around the world for the islands is so huge. Hence, we have decided not to fight it, but serve it. Instead of finding alternatives, we decided to serve the demand professionally. We’re not going to change that. We will do our best to serve the demand and help travellers have the best time so that they will become ambassadors and spread the word for us.
Prisma Reports: You were born and bred on Rhodes island, have been involved in local community affairs since 1997. What would you like to leave behind as your legacy when you end your term?
George Hatzimarkos: The first time I was involved was in 1997 in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I served for 6 years there as President, and so I have experience of the private sector. When I was elected Governor, it was a shock to me because when you move from the private to the public sector, you realize that things move very slowly. The first thing you want to do is to change the situation in the public sector, which is difficult because it can only be done with the government’s support. For the first time, I feel that there is a government who is willing to speed up the public sector and reboot it, which is because of the new prime minister.
To me, a legacy that every politician should leave behind is that he served in an honest way, loved what he did, did his best to bring out the best results for the people and that he served and never betrayed the trust that the people showed to him. That’s the biggest heritage for every politician because technical projects depend on the period that the country is in and whether it has the finances to support them or not. The problem in politics is that people lose their trust in politicians. Hence, the biggest challenge for politicians is to regain the trust and involve the best part of society in politics.