ECOCLUB

ISSN 1108-8931

INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY

Year 7 - Issue 88 - Jan 07

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, Pacuare Lodge,
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Professor Haris Coccossis:
"
The most important challenge is to change our thinking about development, including tourism"

The ECOCLUB Interview
Index of Interviews

Professor Haris KokkosisProfessor Haris Coccossis is Executive Secretary of Tourism at the Greek Ministry of Tourism Development.

Since 2002, he has been Professor of Spatial and Environmental Planning with specialisation in tourism planning, at the Department of Planning and Regional Development, University of Thessaly in Volos. Between 1986-2002 he taught at the Department of Environmental Studies, University of the Aegean as a Professor and as a visiting professor in several universities around the world.

He obtained his PhD in Urban & Spatial Planning at Cornell University (USA),  his MSc in Urban Planning at California State Polytechnic University (USA) and is a licensed Architect & Civil Engineer from the National Technical University of Athens.

Professor Coccossis' extensive international scientific research experience includes directing and participating in over 50 national and international multidisciplinary research programmes covering development, tourism, spatial planning, environmental management and planning issues. For over twenty years he was a scientific advisor for the Mediterranean Action Plan of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP/MAP) working in sustainable development, sustainable tourism, integrated environmental management, urban development and regeneration.

As a scientific advisor for many international organisations (European Commission, OECD, World Bank, FAO, UNEP, UNESCO) he acted as a consultant in issues ranging from spatial planning and environmental management, coastal area management, to planning for tourism, environment and insular development with assignments in Mediterranean and African countries (Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Malta, Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros). He served as consultant and scientific advisor to the Greek Government (Greek National Tourism Organisation, Ministry of Coordination, Ministry of National Economy, Ministry for Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works, Organisation for the Planning and Environmental Protection of Athens) and represented Greece in various international meetings including at the European Commission and the United Nations.

Professor Coccossis has published 12 books and over 50 scientific articles or chapters in international journals and books covering spatial planning and environment, tourism, sustainable development, insular development and related topic, and  has made an  extensive number of presentations in international and domestic scientific conferences.

(The Interview follows:)


ECOCLUB: It is rather rare in Greece, but fortunate, that an internationally acclaimed academic finds himself in a leading government post in a strategic sector such as Tourism1. How easy is it however for someone to suffer the simplifications, the political expediency and the impatience of politicians, and occasionally the miscommunication and conflicting responsibilities of public administrators?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Tourism is a world growing socio-economic phenomenon which affects many destinations. It brings social and economic benefits to local societies, often offering opportunities to disadvantaged locations (like mountain communities and small islands) but also has often significant impacts. Tourism affects the environment and more than any other activity tourism depends on the quality of the environment. Therefore tourism should be carefully planned and managed. In that sense it is a challenge to work in the policy making in tourism and it is this challenge which is attractive to many people, including academics: bridging policy and science.

ECOCLUB: The Athens Olympics, despite the creation of the Metro and the Tram, were surely not the most environmentally friendly in history, as, under the prevailing world climate, priority & funding were given to security issues rather than the environment. However, do you believe that the Olympics greatly boosted tourism in Athens? Would you recommend the Olympics to other cities that aim to revive their tourism, and if so what should they be paying attention to?

Professor Haris Coccossis: The Olympic Games is a complex endeavour which involves many aspects of policy making and planning, not excluding the environment or safety (which is a recent societal priority). The Athens Olympics became an important catalyst to coordinate public and private sector activities towards improving infrastructure and services in a major metropolitan area: Athens. Such improvements had beneficial effects on the quality of life and the image of the city as a tourist destination. The best advice for future candidate cities is to plan carefully the post-event (Olympics) use of facilities and include such considerations in a strategy for the development of tourism, something we missed in the past in Athens.

ECOCLUB: Tourism in Greece, and in many other countries, is an open profession, where anyone, irrespective of training, can try her luck, either as an employee or an investor, something surely democratic and competitive. On the other hand, do you think that the end result is an educational deficiency in all levels, which has negative connotations for service quality? In particular, do you see a need for University seats, in new fields such as Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Tourism is changing. It becomes more elaborate and demanding and in that sense it is important to focus on the quality of the product offered (tourist accommodation, tourist assets, infrastructure and services). Such concerns require continuous education and training at all levels in both private and public sectors. In that respect, tourism education is important. In Greece we still lack in basics so any initiative is welcome.

ECOCLUB: If only you could cure one ill of Greek Tourism during your tenure, which one would you choose?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Three are the great challenges of tourism policy at present in the context of developing a strategy to improve the quality of the tourist product: develop tourism in a context of a strategy towards sustainable development, improve the intelligence of Greek tourism and prepare a master plan for tourism which puts priorities and rules for tourist development on the basis of the particularities of the greek destinations.

ECOCLUB: We hear today's tourism leaders talk about super luxury resorts, golf courts, richer and more, many more, tourists, indicating new source countries such as China. However, could there be perhaps an ultimate maximum limit to the number of tourists, determined by the carrying capacity of a country, both environmental and social? Have sustainable concepts been understood and accepted by the broader tourism and political leadership, or is sustainability and alternative tourism still seen as the magic trick to achieve the famous and elusive extension2 of the tourism season?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Carrying capacity is a powerful concept on which to base tourist development. It can be used as a tool to build consensus among key actors on putting tourism in the context of a strategy towards sustainable development. In essence it is focusing on adapting tourism to the characteristics and particularities of space (the destinations). Part of such a concern is to maintain tourism competitiveness by improving the quality of services but also maintaining the very basis of our comparative advantages: our natural and cultural heritage. These are the yardsticks for any decisions on tourist development and these concerns can guide growth and development of tourism.

ECOCLUB: Very recent studies have alerted us about the danger (refuted by some as hype) of an abrupt increase of temperature in the Mediterranean basin in the next 50 years, up to 5 degrees Celsius, due to the greenhouse effect, with the potential of wrecking summer tourism in Greece. Already, every summer, there are black-outs in the tourist, mainly insular, areas of Greece. What initiative has your Ministry taken, or is considering, so that tourist enterprises at least are both adequately supplied with energy but also environmentally-friendly?

Professor Haris Coccossis: There are incentives for the private sector to adopt environmentally friendly practices and technologies but the most important challenge is to change our thinking about development, including tourism, and this is not a responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism alone. We are pursuing several cross-sectoral issues with other Ministries.

ECOCLUB: Every summer, there are incidents, limited in number in the same resorts and usually non-violent, between drunken tourists and locals, associated with the sun, sea & sand model. Is there a policy to address this particular issue, or is it in any case preferable to sacrifice a few resorts for the sake of the rest?

Professor Haris Coccossis: The eventual crises from the poor behaviour of guests/visitors are part of a broader social phenomenon of social tensions accentuated often in tourism destinations because of the relaxed atmosphere and the easing-off in self control when one is on vacation but also induced by bad practices of certain-a few fortunately-tour operators. Of course such behaviour is unacceptable to the extent it affects social norms, values, properties, etc. and in that respect measures are taken in coordination with foreign embassies, the police, local authorities and travel agents. So far such measures have been proven quite effective.

ECOCLUB: Greece has changed its central tourism slogan (branding) many times in recent years. Is this positive or negative in your opinion, and were you to write a slogan for Greek tourism which one would it be?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Branding the tourist destination-Greece is a serious challenge and for this reason we have the assistance of a specialised consultant selected through international competition. A brand name should be maintained long enough to become effective.

ECOCLUB: The highly seasonal character of Greek tourism is the cause (or the excuse for others) for the annual ritual of firing (and rehiring) of tourism employees3. Could perhaps this not be acceptable in the 21st century, and the winter months should be used to retrain employees?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Extending the tourist season is an important tool in achieving one of our basic goals: to broaden and enrich the tourist product. This takes a lot of time and necessitates measures in several policy fields such as providing special tourist infrastructure (including golf courses, convention and exhibition facilities, rural tourism installations and others) and incentives for attracting tour operators and airlines beyond the tourist season.

ECOCLUB: The tourism sector is famously labour-intensive, thus in Greece it employs many economic migrants. However, this results in uninsured and unofficial employment, abuse of labour laws and training shortcomings. Is there some position or initiative of your Ministry for the immigrants who contribute to Greek tourism?

Professor Haris Coccossis: The social security issues of all those who work, including in tourism, is part of the general social policy of the country, extending beyond the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism.

ECOCLUB: Women Agrotourism Cooperatives: Formerly avant-garde, currently old-guard and waning. Have they simply completed their life-cycle, or do they need state support?

Professor Haris Coccossis: This is because the development of such associations was characterised by a spontaneity (enthusiasm and voluntary work) and lacked serious measures to assist them to reach a required level of competence and organisation to survive in the modern world. New initiatives (not always on the basis of women’s associations) are being developed by the private and/or public sector at several destinations which demonstrate vitality and adaptability to the challenges of modern-day markets. These are supported through various programmes (clustering etc.) of our Ministry.

ECOCLUB: There is a common view that many ugly and unprofessional hotels were built over 30 years ago with easy loans handed out by the then military regime. If there were enough funds to compensate their owners, would you demolish them as other countries have done4 or would you withdraw them from the market by changing their use?

Professor Haris Coccossis: The low competitiveness of the lower end of the tourist accommodations in Greece (hotels and rented rooms included) is probably the most inhibiting factor in upgrading the product. We have a policy to change the use of old hotels and study a broader policy to upgrade and/or remove from the market the lower quality of service units.

ECOCLUB: Greece finally has, thanks to the initiative of the current administration, a Ministry of Tourism Development. However it also has a separate Ministry of Culture and a Ministry of Environment & Public Works. If we pause to think who is responsible for administering an archaeological site in a forested area, should perhaps these three ministries be fused, as in other countries5 - some far larger - or do you believe that the autonomy of the Ministry of Tourism is paramount?

Professor Haris Coccossis: Tourism is a complex activity involving several aspects: transportation, accommodation, services. Therefore in theory a Ministry of Tourism could be a Ministry of Coordination (including responsibilities to manage airports, clean the streets, etc.). This is not possible in a modern context of developed institutions (other Ministries, local authorities, etc.) The challenge is to develop mechanisms of concertation (coordination, synergy building, cooperation) with a Ministry of Tourism as a catalyst.

ECOCLUB: Thank you very much

Notes:

1. Tourism, broadly defined, produces up to 15% of Greek GDP and employs around 800,000 (18% of the official labour force) and an increasing number of economic migrants. It is even more important in most insular and some rural areas. Greece only acquired a 'Tourism Development' ministry in 2004, a few months before the Olympics, after many short-lived attempts in the past. The inclusion of the word 'Development' in the title, although Greece is a mature tourism destination, probably reflected the broader 'pro-development' stance of the incoming government as the Ministry of Agriculture, was also renamed - 'Agricultural Development'.

2. Greek tourism is marked by high seasonality. Some 50% of visitors arrive in the course of just three summer months (July - September), most by charter flights from northern Europe. 'Alternative' forms of tourism are usually seen as ways to attract business, special interest and independent visitors in winter, which is a heavy one with the exception of south Aegean, Crete, and Ionian islands. Seasonality also has its pluses, as it allows the environment to recuperate and locals in rural areas to attend to their more traditional, agricultural duties.

3. We are mainly referring to cleaning personnel and other workers in large resorts. However the same is true for many tavernas, bars and other ancillary services which mostly employ temporary staff, both greek and foreign.

4. In Spain, a number of hotels built in the 70s-80s (some illegally occupying the beach, others dilapidated, or spoiling the view) have been demolished in the Balearics and Costa del Sol, as part of tourism rejuvenation policies, along with moratoria on new hotel construction.

5. An online search in gives plenty of results for "Ministry of Tourism & Culture" (and vice versa) and rather fewer for "Ministry of Tourism & Environment". Only Antigua, Lesotho and St. Kitts, all small-size, however combine all three portfolios.

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here
 

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