For many years, Greece has had a reputation as one of the most exotic, remote and diverse nations in Europe. A combination of mountainous mainland and intimate islands with pure white beaches, Greece may have struck travelers as an out-of-reach destination. But times are changing.
With tour operators cutting prices on packages all over the world, travelers have been able to find exceptional value to destinations considered inaccessible before the recession. And while the classic destinations (London, Paris, the Caribbean, Mexico, etc.) will always beckon, the recent price cuts and value-adds have put Greece back on the tourist map.
“Interest in specific destinations is as cyclical as travel and tourism itself,” says Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations. “Greece is almost always popular. Even in slower years, such as 2008 and 2009, we saw a respectable [number] of bookings on our Greece departures.”
Other tour operators, however, have observed a distinct rise in travel to Greece. Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar Tours, says Greece has moved up from the company’s sixth most-popular destination in 2008 to third in 2009. “The main reason for the popularity is the great value that Greece offers as a destination,” he says. “In tough economic times, the local prices for food, drinks and entertainment as well as sightseeing and accommodation are very important to people.”
Nick Koutsis, vice president of the Greece and Eastern Mediterranean division for Central Holidays, has noticed fluctuating numbers for travel to Greece. From 2004 to 2007, he says, Greece experienced annual growth of 8-11 percent, in terms of visitors from the U.S. “In 2008, numbers leveled off, mostly attributable to a steep decline of the U.S. dollar vs. the euro and sharply [rising] fuel prices. [The following year] brought a decrease of 15 to 20 percent due to the worldwide economic crisis.” Current booking activity, however, indicates a positive turn and points to an increase upward of 10 percent for 2010.
Koutsis credits the 2004 Athens Olympics for Greece’s increased popularity. “The Games boosted the international image of Greece as a safe, hospitable destination—rich in history, culture and natural beauty,” he says. “Additionally, a number of major public works [airports, highways, bridges, subways, etc.] have greatly improved Greece’s infrastructure, enhancing comfort and enjoyment.”
Nico Zenner of Travel Bound says his company’s sales of tours to Greece have increased nearly 30 percent over last year. “Greece has so much to offer—not only a rich culture and archaeological sites, but romance, beaches, relaxation and great Mediterranean food,” he says.
Part of the country’s appeal, Kazlauskas believes, is in its diversity. “While a religious traveler might want to visit Patmos, the artist traveler will be more interested in Rhodes, and the beachcomber will insist on heading over to Mykonos.”
Athens is Travel Bound’s top seller in Greece, says Zenner, followed by Santorini and Mykonos. “Not only did [Athens’] popularity increase as a result of the Olympics, but Piraeus Port is currently the largest passenger port in Europe,” he says. “Because we have been heavily promoting our pre- and post-cruise offerings, bookings for Athens have benefited.” In addition to visiting the iconic Acropolis, history buffs should make a point of strolling through the Plaka, the oldest section in the city.
Kazlauskas, however, says the islands are more popular with his company’s clients. “Most [people] only want to spend two or three days on the mainland and then venture off to the islands,” he says. “Mykonos is always popular, although Santorini, Rhodes, Crete and Patmos are very popular with tourists.” Personally, Kazlauskas prefers spending time in Rhodes.“It is not as touristy or crowded as Santorini or Mykonos, and has such incredible charm.”
From Athens, travelers can take day tours to Corinth, Cape Sounion (Temple of Poseidon) and Delphi, or try a cruise around the Saronic Islands. In Santorini, Travel Bound’s top seller is Fira Town, and in Mykonos, the top draws are Mykonos Town and Platos Yialos.
Trafalgar Tours’ Wiseman recommends several “undiscovered gems” that are worth visiting, including areas in the Peloponnese, Dimitsana, Stemnitsa, Lousios Valley, the mountains of Corinth, the Zagorochoria villages, Paxoi island, Koufonisia islands and Patmos island.
Central Holidays’ Koutsis recommends the islands on the Ionian Sea, such as Lefkas, Ithaka, Zakynthos (Zante) and the south coast of Crete. On the mainland, he prefers the western coast and the Chalkidiki peninsula in northern Greece. But, he adds, finding a good vacation spot isn’t difficult. “Greece has a coastline of over 8,000 miles, and one can encounter a beautiful beach just about anywhere.”
Where to Stay in Greece
We asked Marc Kazlauskas of Insight Vacations to recommend some hotels in popular tourist areas. Here are three of his picks in different parts of the country:
In Athens, Kazlauskas likes The Metropolitan, which has 374 rooms, including 10 Suites, 14 Executive rooms and one Penthouse suite in the heart of the city, with views of both the Acropolis and the Aegean Sea.
In Olympia, he chooses the Antonios, a four-star, 63-room boutique hotel with views of the valley where the earliest Olympic games were played millennia ago.
And in Delphi, check out the Amalia Hotel, which has 184 rooms, most of which have views of the mountains and the port of Itea.
Bob Wieder, the self-described Cruise and Tour Guy, says Greece is a “very hot” destination for the coming years. “Greece advanced in popularity globally with the 2004 Olympics, and the destination is ideal for honeymooners and couples,” he says. “My younger clients [25-40 years old] request the Greek Isles for romance. They represent 60 percent [of my business]. The other 40 percent are older [50-70 years old], and they prefer the mainland arts, culture, ruins, history and museums.”
Wieder suggests visiting Greece in May or September—“the weather is [pleasant] without the crowds,” he says. “These are the best months, although August should be avoided, with many Europeans coming here to holiday. Also, the weather is quite hot, there are many lines and the beaches are crowded. Finding a reasonably priced hotel room during August can be difficult, as well.”
As for suggestions on which places to visit, Wieder says Santorini and Mykonos are favorites—“but don’t rule out the nightlife in Athens, and especially the Plaka area. The fun of a belly-dancing show coupled with Greek cuisine and ouzo make for a wonderful adventure. And don’t forget The Acropolis with surrounding museums and cultural events.
“Greek hospitality says it all,” he adds. “Greeks are a fun-loving, full-of-zest [people who] love their country.”