Ali and I were eager to participate in this European Volunteering in Thessaloniki, both of us craving for this country full of beauty, culture and picture-perfect sceneries . We had received nothing but good feedback about Greece. So, we were looking forward to this short-term project in the summer. Well, even if it meant facing the comeback of international tourists after its lockdown. But after we arrived in this city, we could only witness how empty it was. Not just from what our organization had told us compared to the previous years. We also didn’t expect to see that many empty terraces, closed restaurants and cafes around the city center.
So here is our question for you, dear readers: where are the tourists?
Against all odds, the roads lead to … Greece !
Greece is a resourceful destination that we all have dreamt about at least once in our lives. It is full of white houses and culinary specialties smelling like a vacation. “The country remains cheaper than other Mediterranean countries, locals more than hospitable“, Omar Sabrine, an exchange student from Finland, told us. So, no matter your expectations and desires, the peninsula seems ready to make this dream an intense reality. Lucrative cultural tourism … and culture of tourism?
How important is the tourism industry for Greece ?
Even before WWII, Greece had been promoting itself worldwide. In ancient Greece, the country was already welcoming sport tourism through the Olympic Games for example. After its independence in the early XXth century, the Hellenic peninsula tried to shape a unified and powerful identity. Throughout these decades, you could find in France for example posters promoting the beauty of Greece. But when it comes to economic and social recovery, the country got to master a great advantage, mass tourism. We guess it worked out ? The country has reached an increase of 102 930% of international touristic attraction in 70 years. From 33,000 in the 50s, Greece reached 34M international arrivals in 2019.
Nowadays, this is a whole industry that weighs 18% of the GDP and employs 900 000 people.
Better results than expected for the 2021 tourism season
But as you know, Covid-19 happened. In Greece, 2020 ended with a loss of 8% on its G.D.P. and $23 billion for its tourism industry. An unprecedented tsunami for the peninsula, trying to minimize the damages through several lockdowns, efforts, and vaccination programs.
After receiving the Global Champion Award of Covid-19 Crisis Management in 2021, the country reaps the fruits of its efforts. On May 14th, Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis presented the conditions to a safe tourism opening. A few months later, the first results were really optimistic. Among others an increase of flight bookings from Switzerland (26%), France (31%), and Germany (25%), compared with August 2019 ! Other European countries such as Spain still struggle to bring the tourists back.
Manon Facon, a French friend of Laëtitia, decided to visit Santorini with her best friend in August.
“I had always wanted to visit this place, but we thought it honestly out of our budget. Surprisingly (and for sure because of Covid-19), we were able to make it !”
This incomparable growth will be for sure a breath of fresh air for the Greek economy. But we also have to remember that the peninsula has been fighting several wildfires and heat waves during the whole summer. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to stop the interest of tourists.
Between national identity and flagship destinations
Before landing in Thessaloniki, we also thought that this city would look like Santorini. Well, we were wrong and told everyone back home that Greece is not only about this postcard inked in our minds. But even if this generalization is sad, it says a lot !
A birthplace of the European Civilization
Marilla Fotopoulou put us on a first interesting track. What if the worldwide-spread Greek cultural heritage helped to popularize the southern part of the country?
The 21-year-old Spartan is currently studying Psychology in Thessaloniki. According to her, most people abroad know more about her hometown, than the second biggest city of Greece. Well, can Thessaloniki really compete popularity-wise about the former Kingdom that took part in the mythical battle of Thermopylae? The legend keeps inspiring authors and movie makers still in 2021. The same goes for the Ionian Islands immortalized by the Homerian Odyssean and the mythical Athens, protected by its patron goddess Athena.
This cultural legacy embraces today a soft power that amazes millions of people across the world. This legacy also includes the development of Democracy in Athens and political institutions. Greece remains a “birthplace of the European civilization” and the pioneer of the institutional and social fundamentals around the world. Here is also why many parliaments and political institutions are built in a Greek-style. So maybe this legacy is rooted in our collective unconscious, arousing the public’s curiosity and interest.
In 2019, 16.4M international arrivals were recorded at the airport of Athens International Airport, against 4M in Thessaloniki.
A perfect spot of holidays
The whitewashed houses in the Cycladic Islands are for sure another spearhead of this “Greek identity”. These are perfect sceneries, of course, that scream an urge of vacation, “diakopes” (διακοπές) in Greek, meaning interruption literally. But did you know that these houses had been washed out after Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas in 1936 for hygienic and aesthetic reasons ? To make them look “more picturesque” ? We found it amusing; many places get famous for their history aside from their features. By doing so, would this minister have expected them to become one of the favorite touristic spots in the world? Of course, this is not the most eco-friendly way to support the national economy. But the comeback of tourists brings hope in this sink caused by the pandemic.
Thessaloniki : Meet another Greece
The southern lights keeps capturing our admiration, and we were feeling confused at our arrival in this northern city. But well, travel is also about new and unexpected experiences, right? If many tourists use Thessaloniki as a shortstop before going to other places in the country, it remained mysterious somehow. Volunteering here gave us actually a taste of how locals here see and appreciate their own country.
A beautiful nymph of the Thermaic Gulf
“I was 16 when I first discovered the city, Marilla told us about the “Nymph of the Thermaic Gulf”. “It was wintertime, and Thessaloniki looked like a typical European city with its Christmas decorations. For my studies in Psychology, this destination gathered all my expectations. I wanted a modern and student city, less busy and more chill than Athens for sure, with a good Psychology faculty.“
If most tourists seem attracted to the southern cities, many locals prefer Thessaloniki through the open-minded, chill, and hospitable attitude. People feel like they live in a vibrant village, full of excellent tavernas and good coffee shops. It’s also near Halkidiki, forests, and Mount Olympus.
Johanna Lummerstorfer, an Austrian youth worker from Linz we met during a tour in Ano Poli, felt that energy. “Indescribable, it was love at first sight. I feel welcomed, and the city feels so alive! The food is also good, the houses and beaches beautiful, the music is nice!“.
A forgotten historical heritage
Just by yourself or guided by Giorgos Semkos from freewalkingtoursthessaloniki, you could easily find the roots of its millennium story. The city looks like an open-air museum, shaped by the heritages of Alexander the Great, Greek mythology or by its Roman Byzantine Ottoman, and even Jewish influences. We even found out that this portion of Macedonia had actually been annexed to Greece after 1913.
So maybe, Thessaloniki is this kind of versatile city that you need to get to know better to appreciate. In French, we use the word “Dépaysement” to express being taking to a completely different culture. Maybe we feel “dépays-ated”, but at home in some way at the same time. A strange and beautiful feeling that makes us wonder about this mysterious city.
It‘s for sure a different Greece. Neither the dreamy one we had expected, nor the one we discovered at our arrival. Volunteering here brought us so much. We were thankful to exchange with locals, see the city through their eyes, to listen and understand.
In general, Greece is not just about the south and the islands. Sometimes even, the islands don’t feel like being part of this country. “Greece has been fighting against the economic crisis for years, and the Cycladic Islands are way too expensive for a lot of locals. This area sounds out of our reality and way too touristic,” explained Marilla. Like Athena Lainopoulou, a receptionist at the Stay Hybrid Youth Hostel Thessaloniki, pointed out, “this country has everything to provide to people: beaches, mountains, bars, villages, cities, countryside, rivers!“.
Coming here made us understand more about current geopolitical issues on the spot. Greece, among other countries, welcomes asylum seekers and refugees from regions such as Afghanistan, Syria, South Asia. This urge for help makes them cross every year the seas between Turkey and Greece, reach islands such as Lesvos. These same islands where many tourists spend opulent holidays. The cohabitation between both worlds seems ironic and unrealistic.
2021 : a wave of change for the Greek tourism industry?
Maybe Greece is faithful to its roots. Like a mythical hero, the country has gone through the pandemic waves, trying to rescue its vessel from the sink with efforts, restrictions, and vaccination programs. And it kind of worked out. The Hellenic Republic got out of the lockdown and received international recognition and encouraging results for local tourism. If international tourists are fascinated by the southern Greece, the Greek Tourism Organization is actually working on making its touristic campaigns evolve. They would be longer, not just for relaxation in the summer, and highlight the mainland’s features. This decision would help Greece scatter high touristic flows and provide more regular business activities to the whole national territory.
We find the decision exciting. Maybe in some years, Europe will get a more accurate picture of the Greek culture. Meanwhile, we will remain devoted as European ambassadors of both a shaded Hellenic peninsula and the European Solidarity Corps. Because after all, both welcomed us and made us more aware and active citizens.
Special thanks to our dear interviewees ! 🙂
Special Reporter : Ali Dampied
Author : Laëtitia Modot