The Tourism Geography of South-Eastern Europe

Apart from their location in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, we think there is justifi cation for including Greece, the countries of the Balkan Peninsula, Turkey and Cyprus in the same chapter. Most of these countries have developed tourism industries based on beach holidays, serving the North European market. Cultural tourism is also important, and part of their attraction for visitors is a heritage that is a blend of Western and Middle Eastern infl uences. During the period of Turkish expansion in the sixteenth century, almost the whole region became part of the Ottoman Empire, and some of the Greek islands and Cyprus formed the front line in the struggle waged by the Republic of Venice and the Knights of St. John in the defence of Christian Europe. The heritage of the Ottoman Empire can be seen in the architecture, cuisine and handicrafts of south-eastern Europe, and most of these countries have large Muslim communities.


THE SETTING FOR TOURISM The location of Greece on the periphery of the European Union, and its relatively weak economy, have tended to obscure the unique contribution that this small country has made to European culture: ● Greece is regarded as the birthplace of European civilisation. The Minoan culture of Crete fl ourished at the same time as ancient Egypt (circa 2000 BC ) and was in some respects more advanced. It was followed by the more warlike Mycenean culture on the mainland, which formed the basis of legends such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and Jason’s Argonauts. Greece as ‘ the land of gods and heroes ’ has inspired a good deal of European art and literature. ● Later (after 500 BC), Classical Greece under the leadership of Athens developed many of the ideas and institutions which became central to the Western heritage, such as democracy and the Olympic Games. Architectural achievements, such as the Parthenon, continue to provide inspiration, and the dramas of Sophocles are still performed for modern audiences in the original open-air theatres as at Epidauros. Hellenic culture was spread far beyond Greece, particularly by Alexander the Great, and strongly infl uenced the Romans. ● After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the torch of civilisation was carried on by the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The Greek Orthodox Church spread to much of eastern Europe and Russia, strongly infl uencing religious art (for example, the use of ikons) and architecture. Geographically, Greece forms part of the Balkan Peninsula, and has a cultural outlook different from Western Europe. It shares with other countries in the region: ● Orthodox Christianity, rather than Roman Catholicism; ● The Cyrillic rather than the Roman alphabet and ● A history of centuries of domination by the Ottoman Empire. Greece is also situated at the threshold of the Middle East, and Greek communities have long been a feature of the Levant –the eastern shore of the Mediterranean – from Alexandria to Asia Minor. Middle Eastern infl uences are evident in many aspects of modern Greek culture, including food and music. However, relations with Turkey have often been strained, with emotional responses based on historical grievances getting in the way of international co-operation that would benefi t tourism in both countries as well as in Cyprus. The entry of Turkey into the European Union should reduce these tensions. The geographical proximity of Greece to some of the world’s “ trouble spots ”in the Balkans and the Middle East has also had a negative impact on the country’s tourism industry. For example, the Western media have alleged lack of security at Athens Airport on several occasions. The country’s geography also explains why Greece has a maritime outlook extending well beyond the Mediterranean. The 16000 kilometre-long coastline is deeply indented and has many islands, while the interior is, for the most part, mountainous –in Greece, the sea and the mountains are never far away. The landscape has been devastated by soil erosion (largely due to deforestation) and good agricultural land is scarce. Not surprisingly, Greeks have been seafarers throughout their history, while Greece today has one of the world’s largest shipping fl eets and is active in cruise tourism. Due to the lack of economic opportunity, there has been a great deal of emigration, particularly from the Aegean islands, to countries such as Australia or the USA. In fact, the Greeks of this overseas diaspora far outnumber the population of Greece itself. As far as tourism is concerned, the multiplicity of islands and harbours provides an ideal environment for sailing holidays and cruising, while the clear water of the Aegean favours diving. Tourism is vital to the Greek economy, since it accounts for about 16 per cent of GDP and is a signifi cant source of foreign exchange, compensating for nearly half the country’s international trade defi cit. Around 18 per cent of the workforce is employed in the tourism industry during the peak summer months, according to offi cial fi gures. However, the contribution of tourism to job creation is even higher if we consider the ‘ black economy ’of unregistered businesses, which is a fact of life in Greece as in other south European countries. Tourism is also responsible for facilitating economic and social development in areas where other opportunities for wealth creation are lacking. Tourism has stemmed the tide of emigration from the Aegean islands, and there is now a reverse fl ow, including entrepreneurs from the mainland (which is not always to the advantage of the island economy).


DOMESTIC AND OUTBOUND TOURISM Although nearly half the population engage in tourism, only a small percentage of trips are to foreign countries, mainly due to the economic problems in Greece in the new millennium and also concerns for safety. In some of the Greek islands, notably Rhodes, domestic tourists are far fewer than foreign holidaymakers, and their length of stay tends to be much shorter. Domestic tourism includes summer excursions to the coastal resorts and islands, winter skiing in the mountains and pilgrimages to Orthodox shrines, such as Tinos in the Aegean. INBOUND TOURISM Cultural tourism has a long history in Greece, and although the country was not included in the Grand Tour, it was visited by writers like Lord Byron, who did much to promote the cause of Greek independence in the early nineteenth century. However, organised tourism did not take place on any scale until the 1950s. Along with other Mediterranean destinations, Greece developed rapidly during the 1970s largely on the basis of price and the attractions of the Greek islands. The hosting of the 2004 Olympics in Athens provided the impetus for major improvements in infrastructure, although the economic benefi ts were less evident. However, arrivals increased by 14 per cent the following year, and in 2006 arrivals exceeded 17 million. The majority of tourists to Greece are visiting for recreational rather than cultural reasons –in search of sun, sand, sea, the nightlife, and for a substantial number of visitors, the so-called ‘ Shirley Valentines ’ –romance. The Greek tradition of hospitality known as philoxenia (literally love of strangers) has probably been an asset in developing a vast service sector dominated by small family-run enterprises. Britain and Germany supply about 30 per cent of the total number of visitors, most of who arrive on inclusive tours. Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Albania and the Scandinavian countries are also major generators of tourism for Greece. Large numbers of tourists also come from the USA, attracted mainly by the heritage of Classical Greece. The success of the Athens Olympics has boosted national pride and self-confi dence. Greece is determined to downplay its image as a beach destination for north Europeans, and develop ecotourism, which is in its infancy. This will require greater investment in infrastructure.


TRANSPORT More than three quarters of visitors to Greece arrive by air, encouraged by the growth of budget airline services across Europe. The most important gateways are Athens, serving southern and central Greece, and Thessaloniki for the north. The national carrier Olympic Airways and its associate Olympic Aviation operates a network of domestic air services based on Athens throughout this fragmented country, although it no longer holds the monopoly. Quite a few Greek islands can be reached by direct charter fl ights from the cities of northern Europe, the most signifi cant being Corfu (Kerkira), Cephalonia, Zante (Zakinthos), Crete (Iraklion and Chania), Mykonos, Rhodes and Kos. Greece receives around 6 per cent of its visitors from cruise ships plying the eastern Mediterranean. Overland travel by road or rail is also an option, but it is time-consuming as it involves: ● Ferry crossings from Ancona or Brindisi to Patras if the visitor is arriving via Italy; or ● The possibility of lengthy delays at border crossings if the visitor is travelling through the republics of the former Yugoslavia. Before the break-up of that country and the subsequent wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia (1991 – 99) this was the preferred route, but it remains potentially unsafe, given the likelihood of another crisis in the Balkans. The rail network within Greece, operated by Hellenic Railways (OSL) has suffered from chronic under-funding and many of the lines are single-track, reducing capacity and speed. However, fast inter-city services do link Athens to Thessaloniki and Patras. Much of the road system is also poor by European Union standards, especially on the islands where the accident rate among tourists hiring mopeds for example, is unacceptably high. On the other hand, Greece has one of the world’s most extensive networks of coastal shipping services. The system is not ideal from a tourist’s viewpoint, as most ferries operate from the hub of Piraeus, the port of Athens, inter-island connections can be infrequent, and shipping companies are reluctant to provide an integrated service. ‘ Island-hopping ’is part of the attraction of Greece for many tourists, but it requires patience and an element of planning. Ferries are subject to delays and even cancellations, especially in the Aegean, when the meltemi wind blows during the summer months. In good weather, the more remote islands can be reached by caiques (converted fi shing boats). ACCOMMODATION The accommodation and catering sectors are well represented in Greece, and consist mainly of small and medium sized enterprises (SMTEs). The offi cial stock of hotels and self-catering villas, apartments and studios is considerable (over 300000 beds in serviced accommodation alone), but it is exceeded by unregistered accommodation known collectively as parahoteleria, amounting to perhaps one million bedspaces. Most of the establishments offering rooms to let to visitors arriving in the Greek islands fall into this category. A large number of campsites are also available. ORGANISATION The importance of tourism is recognised by the government. The Ministry of Tourism shares responsibilities with the Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO) for promotion, planning, the implementation of policies at both national and regional levels and co-ordination of the public and private sectors in tourism development. Government involvement currently is less than in the 1970s when it took a direct role in encouraging tourism, itself building facilities on a considerable scale, and offering a wide range of incentives to private developers. Tourism is included in the Five Year plans for economic and social development, supplemented by European Union funding. The GNTO faces a number of problems brought about by both the nature of tourism to Greece and the vulnerability of many of the country’s resources. They include: ● Seasonality. The emphasis on ‘ summer sun ’tourism does mean that there is a major problem, as 75 per cent of tourist arrivals are concentrated in the months May to September. This forces those employed in the tourism sector to work excessively long hours, to the detriment of the traditional family values characteristic of the Greek way of life. ● Geographical concentration. Tourism development is mainly restricted to Athens, the coastal resorts and some of the islands. This makes it diffi cult to spread the benefi ts of tourism more evenly throughout the country, and to provide adequate accommodation and other facilities to cope with demand. ● The negative social impact of mass tourism. During the off-season, the Greek islands are almost crime-free, but health and police services are stretched to the limit in some popular resorts during the peak summer months –to cope with the effects of alcohol and drug abuse by some north European holidaymakers. This type of behaviour is offensive to the host community but is tolerated because tourism brings in much needed income. ● Over-dependence on foreign tour operators. Attempts by hoteliers to introduce higher standards and prices mean that the mass market no longer sees Greece as an inexpensive destination, while high-spending tourists are deterred from visiting the popular resorts and the country faces competition from cheaper destinations in the region.