Greek Minister of Tourism Olga Kefalogianni recently arrived in the States for the opening of “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium From Greek Collections” at the National Gallery of Art (through March 2). Unfortunately, the minister never made it to Washington. Of all the bad luck, the government shut down, forcing the museum to shutter its doors and delay the exhibit. Despite the canceled trip, Travel staff writer Andrea Sachs caught up with the politician by phone at her hotel in New York. The question we were itching to ask, of course: How is Greece doing these days? Edited excerpts:
How did the euro crisis and recession affect tourism to Greece?
Tourism was the only sector of the economy that actually showed a lot of resilience throughout these years of the crisis and the recession. Last year was a very challenging year, because tourists had a lot of misperceptions about the country because of all the negative publicity. But we still ended up having a very marginal decrease in the number of international visitors — 5 percent.
How has the country recovered in the past year?
2013 is a comeback year in Greek tourism, and the year hasn’t even ended yet. We already see that it will be a record year both in arrivals of international visitors and in revenue. We are looking at an increase of almost 20 percent, which is astonishing and even better than the very positive signs that we had at the beginning of this year. I believe that the future looks even more promising for tourism, and we are working very hard to reestablish Greece as one of the top destinations worldwide.
How is Greece today in terms of safety?
Greece remains a very safe and welcoming destination, and this year there were no strikes or closing down of museums and monuments. I understand that Americans are more sensitive when it comes to safety issues, and this is why I want to convey the message that, though we have our economic problems, visitors would not notice this, because we never had any incident of any visitor being hurt in any way.
Greece is known for its hospitality. Does this trait still prevail?
Hospitality is an inherent characteristic of Greece, but I think nowadays Greeks feel even more hospitable to our visitors, because they realize more than ever that tourism is so important for our country. We actually want to show our hospitality and warmth to everyone who chooses our country for their vacation. I also know that celebrities know of this hospitality, and that is why they choose Greece as the destination for their vacations. When I was in New York, I met Sarah Jessica Parker, who told me that she had a great vacation in Greece. She also said that Greece is a great destination for people who have children. [Parents] know that they can find attractions and recreational activities for their children.
Is Greece an attractive off-season destination?
Greece has a moderate climate year-round, and we are mostly known for the Greek islands and yachting, cruising and all the activities near the beach. But Greece is a unique destination when it comes to cultural activities. Wherever you go, you have so many monuments, archeological sites, museums, beautiful nature, fantastic healthy food and Greek gastronomy well known for having locally produced ingredients. Greece is a destination year-round, and off-season is even more value for the money.
Any future developments in tourism?
A very investment-friendly law passed in August, and we are expecting to have new investments in tourism. This will be more at the high end of the market, with the development of golf courses. We are also taking into consideration environmental aspects and trying to have sustainable development.
What are some of your favorite places to visit?
I come from Crete, and that’s always my favorite destination both to relax and to explore so many different experiences. It’s the island where, according to mythology, Zeus was raised. I also love some of the islands that are very quiet and where one can have a very nice and romantic vacation, such as Patmos and Ithaki. The Peloponnese with ancient Olympia is, of course, a must-see, and also the site of the ancient Oracle at Delphi; in the northern part of the country, Thessaloniki, the second-largest city after the capital city of Athens; and the archaeological site of Veria.
What are some signature foods travelers should try?
Even if you are a vegetarian, you can find so many options, because Greek cuisine uses a lot of vegetables and is based on olive oil. If you come during the summer and are near the sea, you should definitely try fresh fish — grilled — and octopus. I personally love stuffed vegetables: tomatoes, eggplants and peppers stuffed with rice. And of course, the famous Greek yogurt, which we use to complement dishes or as a dessert or for breakfast. I love it with Greek honey as a nice option for a lighter dessert.
What would you say to travelers still concerned about the country’s stability?
It’s clear after the June elections of 2012 and the formation of the coalition government that we have both political and economic stability. Of course, we still have challenges. But everyone feels that the future will be better.
And your final message to would-be travelers to Greece?
Greece is a traditional destination and is again very much in vogue.
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