Greece is considered the model for pandemic responsiveness, and one of the safest destinations 2020 tourists can travel.
On March 11th, 2020 the World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced to the world that the spread of COVID-19 was a pandemic. Ten days before, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the cancellation of all carnivals and festivals until further notice.
Even before the first cases of COVID-19 reached Greece’s borders, Mitsotakis’ administration had put in place an emergency committee of scientists made up of top epidemiologists, infections disease experts, and virologists to advise on the rapidly developing situation. Greece, a country that relies heavily on tourism for its GDP, was only beaten out by one day by Croatia, in acting fast to get a handle on the outbreak. By March 10th, every school and university in the country was closed, three days later all cafes and restaurants closed, and by March 22nd the country we essentially in lockdown mode.
For weeks, Greeks were not allowed to leave their homes except to buy food, visit the pharmacy or a doctor, or to walk their dog. Here on Crete we had to obtain an e-pass and declare our intentions and a destination/purpose for going out. Three months later, and Greece is considered the model for pandemic responsiveness, and one of the safest destinations 2020 tourists can travel. The Mitsotakis administration is in the spotlight now, because of the administration’s success in flattening the coronavirus curve, and because the prime minister has put his reputation on the line rebooting tourism 2020.
“The true test of a leader is whether his followers will adhere to his cause from their own volition, enduring the most arduous hardships without being forced to do so, and remaining steadfast in the moments of greatest peril.” – Xenophon
A huge part (25%) of Greece’s economy depends on tourism. The country has only recently emerged from a crippling eight-year financial crisis which made the country, as Mr. Mitsotakis said recently; “the punching bag of Europe.” The country’s stellar response to this crisis has turned the tables on world opinion about Greece. But unless the administration can get tourism back on track, thousands of businesses will fail, hundreds of thousands will be out of work, and all that has been gained will be lost.
So, when Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis says that “Greece is coronavirus-safe,” everyone concerned wants to believe. The situation is so dire, it’s even difficult for those most closely affected to come to grips. Hotels, for instance, are in a situation so precarious the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels says as many as 65% will go bankrupt this year. Even with the administration’s so-far extraordinary success, there is a lot of anxiety from officials, business people, and the citizens on the streets. To get a local perspective, I decided to make an appointment to see one of the country’s most interesting businessmen.
This morning I drove to Agia Pelagia, one of Crete’s most popular seaside villages, to talk with entrepreneur Dimitris Markakis, who’s the man behind SeaScape Luxury Residences, a new property scheduled to reopen at the end of this month. I met Markakis back in 2018 when SeaScape was being completed, and he’s a great person to ask about Mitsotakis’ Greek Summer 2020 initiative to welcome tourists. The last two years Agia Pelagia, SeaScape, and many local businesses there have thrived in unprecedented fashion.
For those unfamiliar, Crete is a special case given the size and diversity of its tourism offering. The home of the mysterious Minoans who were the forebears of western civilization, Crete is also a nature lover’s paradise, a culinary Mecca, and the Ibiza of the eastern Mediterranean. Most first-time visitors are astonished at the real dimensions and diversity of the island. And the people of Crete are unique and fascinating in their own right. Dimitris Markakis is a perfect example of a Cretan entrepreneur who adheres to tradition while seeing the big picture as well.
Developing SeaScape, Markakis took a big chance and traversed many obstacles which he now reflects on with a smile. Back in 2018 when it looked like a grand opening would take a miracle, the Greek businessman was frayed around the edges from the pressure. Today, as I walked the promenade of the postcard-perfect bay, only a few locals occupied the sun loungers on lining the stunning bay. Markakis seemed happy to see a familiar face, as he excused himself from a COVID-19 mini-seminar being given to his employees by government officials. The scene when I walked into the room affirmed my early assessment of the Greeks and the COVID reaction, unlike many other countries the people here are taking matters very seriously.
Seeing this, my first question for Markakis was about how the newest hospitality endeavor in the region would fare in the abbreviated season. The Cretan entrepreneur was, like many others I’ve spoken with recently, cautiously optimistic about “rescuing” 2020. Profits will be cut to the bone if there are any profits at all. I asked SeaScape’s owner if his property would fare better or worse than other hospitality businesses this year.
A conservative man, and fairly new in the hotels business, he was hesitant to make any such prediction. He did point out how his offering is differentiated via the touristic experience. Here’s what the Heraklion businessman told me:
“On Crete, there is an opportunity to fill a touristic niche made up of travelers who want total freedom to develop their own experience. SeaScape Luxury Residences is a fusion of luxury lifestyle and experiential travel that delivers this kind of flexibility.”
With the pandemic creating a cloud of uncertainty, Markakis seems calm in comparison to business people in other parts of the world. Most of the Crete business people I speak with seem to be taking the COVID-19 catastrophe in stride. After all, as he tells me; “Giving up is not an option.” I admire people like Dimitris Markakis, or small business owners like Aristidis Tzagarakis, who owns the seaside fish Restaurant Giorgos on the beach in Kalamaki. I was at his restaurant on the Gulf of Mesara the other day, as the only guest at any establishment on that amazing beach. The Cretan’s smile was still there, his food traditional and fresh as ever, and the attitude of all the villagers around still shined with Filoxenia. These people, so many of my friends, they’ve put everything they have on the line during this time. Their attitudes reminded me of something the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger once said:
“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”
From Greece’s Prime Minister, who is the first leader in decades to have somehow garnered the support of the whole country in crisis, to the large and small business owners of Crete, there’s a resilience that’s pointedly evident today. A decade of austerity decimated every facet of Greece’s society from transportation to the public health system. And Greeks, especially Cretans, are famous for shunning authority, for their independence, and somehow the former banker got the people to pull together. I get this from my friend the baker across the street here in Heraklion, and from tavern owners by the sea in the south of the island.
Fear, it would seem, does not have the same definition in Greece as it does in the U.K., the United States, or in most countries accustomed to hard times. I believe the adversity Greeks have undergone has welded them into a far stronger society than they’re given credit for. Here on Crete, we’re all crossing our fingers that the prime minister putting his reputation on the line makes Greece’s touristic value shine all the more brightly.
Phil is a prolific technology, travel, and news journalist and editor. An engineer by trade, he is a partner in one of Europe’s leading PR and digital marketing firms, Pamil Visions PR.
He’s also a Huffington Post contributor on many topics, a travel and tech writer for The Epoch Times in print and online, and for several magazines including Luxurious.
Phil also contributes regularly to TravelDailyNews, The official Visit Greece Blog, and is an analyst for Russia Today and other media.
His firm has done all the content for Time Magazine’s top travel site Stay.com, as well as other online travel portals such as Vinivi out of France. He’s also a very influential evangelist of social media and new digital business, with a network of some of the most notable business people therein.