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Manolis Psarros Interview / Ecotourism in Greece



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ECOCLUB Interview with Manolis Psarros
Sustainable Tourism Consultant - Destination Expert (CED)
new Head of the Sustainable Tourism Development Department,  
Greek Sustainable Tourism Organization, ELAGRO

"Greek Tourism should move from central administration models to local ones"

Manolis PsarrosManolis Psarros has extensive experience as a consultant in tourism planning & development as well as destination management & marketing in Greece. In 2005, he was part of the team that planned & launched the first official destination management organization / tourism board for the city of Athens, the Athens Tourism & Economic Development Company (ATEDCo) and the official visitor's website (now at www.breathtakingathens.com). In 2006 he was promoted to the position of Tourism Development Director, which he held until early 2009. During his tenure, he dealt with sustainable tourism development and tourism policy issues at international & domestic level, EU funding programs for upgrading Athens' tourism services, project management for tourism-related events and sales & promotion strategies for the travel sector. He also had to deal with the tourism repercussions from unprecedented unrest in the streets of Athens in December 2008. From February 2009, Mr Psarros is working as an external tourism development & destination management consultant for public & private entities while at the same time he is a member of the World Centre of Excellence in Destinations (CED) team of destination experts. His work experience also includes consultancy for a large agricultural cooperative in the Peloponnese. Mr Psarros has a BA (hons) in Hospitality Management with Tourism & Leisure from the University of Huddersfield and an MSc in Tourism Planning & Development from Oxford Brookes University.

ECOCLUB.com:  Athens is used to unrest, but the December 2008 events (seen by some as a May 68 style uprising to be followed in other metropolises and by others as hooliganism & petty theft) were large in both scale and duration. In the era of the Internet, they received plenty of real time coverage, both air-time and e-time, by bloggers, accidental tourists, and no less by leading international journalists who were in Athens for a media conference, ironically…held with the aim of promoting the city. The general impression is that the climate of unrest, (which is still being fuelled by events such as the recent felling of trees by the municipality to create a parking lot) did put off some visitors so far, although it is hard to separate its effect from that of the economic crisis. From your first hand experience, are major city destinations which have been hit by extreme events (such as Athens, Mumbai or London) naturally resilient in terms of their tourism or is Crisis Management in Tourism the real way out?

Manolis Psarros: Based on the international experience, major tourist destinations have proved to be naturally resilient in terms of their tourism flow. Even in cases such as London’s terrorism attack and Paris’ riots, the visitors’ flow has not been affected in the long term.  As far as Athens is concerned, there was a direct negative effect in both arrivals & overnight stays mainly due to the extensive global media coverage of the December’s events and the inefficiency of the Greek authorities to deal with it in a effective way. Although the incidence of riots may be diminishing, there is evidence that the adverse effect will persist, as bookings may remain low for months to come. To my knowledge, the impact of an extreme event could be significantly mitigated through effective crisis management plans and applications. Visit Britain’s Tourism Emergency Response Group actions in relation to the 07/07/2005 London bombings as well as Thailand’s reaction after the Tsunami are typical success stories in terms of crisis management practices in tourism. It must be noted however, that no matter how resilient or well-managed a destination is, the density of many different types of crises alters the visitors’ behaviour at a global level and affects their ability and/or desire to travel from time to time. More specifically, a recent IPK International study illustrated how the “consumer greed of the recent years has turned into consumer fear with mass consumer travel confidence shrinking” and that “whilst the travel market showed remarkable resilience against challenges like terrorism, natural disaster, SARS and Bird Flu, we now finally have a real global economic crisis.” In any case, destination managers should recognize the important role that media and government advisory messages can play in gaining the confidence of travellers and be aware that the media need to be kept informed of the measures being taken to enhance traveller security. Moreover, destination managers should undertake constant research and analysis projects on how governments and tourism operators can best manage risk and respond to different types of crises. To conclude, tourist destinations—especially in times of social unrest & political fragility— should integrate crisis management planning into their overall sustainable tourism planning & development and destination marketing & management strategy to protect and rebuild their image of safety/attractiveness, to reassure potential visitors of the safety of the area, to reestablish the area’s functionality/attractiveness andto aid local travel and tourism industry members in their economic recovery.

ECOCLUB.com: You were involved with the setting up and operation of the first Destination Management Organisation (DMO) for Athens. One wonders what role can DMOs play in a country already suffering from organizational overcrowding, bureaucracy, centralization, lack of continuity in policies and constant structural changes further complicated by EU directives, policies and funding?

Manolis Psarros: First of all we need to point out that the needs, expectations and anticipated benefits of tourism vary greatly from one destination to the next, and there is certainly no "one size fits all" approach to destination management. Based on this fact, we need to establish decentralized, locally-based destination management structures around the country by taking into consideration a number of geographical, economical, social & environmental factors. The intensive occurrence of the aforementioned problems & barriers (bureaucracy, centralisation etc) throughout the Greek public administration mechanism does not mean that we should not aim to launch universally applied successful tourism development & destination management practices & structures such as the DMOs. Athens was the first Greek city which understood the necessity of establishing a DMO for coordinating the local tourism industry and promoting the local tourism product. Thessaloniki is on the same course after the merger of the local tourism organisation with the local convention bureau while many other Greek destinations are expressing their interest in setting up similar bodies. However, this trend should be engaged with national tools & guidelines for destination management at the local level in order to ensure that DMOs will be launched only in regions & places where the appropriate ground for development exist (strong local partnerships, sustainable tourism culture, expertise knowledge, adequate funds). After all, Destination Management Organizations are expected to become the dominant, most influential and most respected force behind the world’s largest services sector and the Greek tourism should not miss that train.

ECOCLUB.com: In the land where direct democracy was born, it is quite surprising how many decisions are taken by the government and the private sector without consultation with ordinary citizens (as opposed to “stakeholders”) only to provoke a public backlash and to be withdrawn afterwards. From your experience, would Greek DMOs be able to apply direct democracy and still be functional and relevant, or should they try the “stakeholder” / council approach?

Manolis Psarros: I would not suggest a specific decision-making process based on a black-or-white approach. Both community & stakeholder participatory methods could be applied depending on the nature of each issue and/or policy to be decided. DMOs by definition should involve the destination as whole in their management procedures by adopting participating governance structures led by local authorities, with the involvement of local NGOs, community and indigenous representatives, academia, and local chambers of commerce. Lack of effective community & stakeholders consultation procedures is probably the major drawback of the Greek public policy & administration at both national and regional level. It must be noted however, that only through well-planned, results-oriented and consistent public consultation processes can we avoid conflicts, ensure broad acceptance of the decisions taken and achieve community involvement in the implementation stage. Moreover, I strongly believe that local communities should be heavily involved in the decision-making process when it comes to developmental issues which affect the residents’ quality and way of life. On the contrary, decisions regarding destination marketing policies & strategies should be taken mainly by experts in cooperation with local stakeholders and only after thorough research and careful consideration of each destination’s tourism product, history and culture. Based on the international experience in community-based tourism, the best examples are where there are intermediary bodies-facilitators (DMOS in the western world - NGOs & Government Committees in developing countries) who understand tourists and their needs and also have the best interests of the community at heart.

ECOCLUB.com: For example, currently there is a great dispute between local municipalities and hoteliers, over the level of the 2.5% Bed Tax (“Telos Parepidimounton”), with the latter arguing for, and succeeding in convincing the greek government to abolish it in light of the economic crisis, however local authorities will have none of this as they stand to lose up to 40% of their total revenues in some cases. Surely this tax is a key way for tourism to support the local economy no? In fact, why not extend it to tour operators as well?

Manolis Psarros: First of all we need to point out that the original purpose of the bed tax is to raise taxes for local governments without incurring the dismay of voters since, by definition, the people paying the tax are out of towners who do not vote in local elections. However, the whole rationale of placing a bed tax is based on the irrational assumption that this incremental charge will have no impact on the price elasticity of demand since the local businesses are charging the value of the service provided (accommodation) and request for the additional bed tax only to further impute it to the local authority. This rationale comes in contrast with the typical consumers’ behaviour since most of us tend to compare prices and finally decide on our purchases based on the total value of the product/service. An easy solution would be to suspend the bed tax and give the opportunity to hotel (and restaurants) businesses to provide competitive prices to their customers especially during the economic recession. On the other hand, the local authorities, especially those who are heavily depended on bed tax revenues, will struggle to cope with their expenditures and eventually they will have to cut down cleaning and maintenance costs. As a result the destination’s product mix will gradually degrade and tourist demand will decline. It can be perceived from the above that there’s no way to apply a mutually beneficial and commonly-accepted solution at a national level. For that reason, a special tax model should be applied based on the interrelation of the bed tax revenue to the total tax revenues of each local authority. It must be also ensured that a fixed percentage of bed tax revenues will be invested directly in destination marketing projects & campaigns on an annual basis in order to achieve increased tourist bednights and maintain revenue flows. Additionally, special bed tax coverage for tourist businesses could be provided by the national government, particularly in times of economic strain. Extending the tax to tour operators and/or any other intermediate of the tourist distribution chain, would not be wise for destinations that wish to maintain or increase their visitors’ flow. Such a policy measure will distort tour operator’s incentives structure, though it could work well as a tool for maintaining carrying capacity levels or setting up limits of acceptable change for saturated destinations or destinations with sensitive natural, social and cultural environment.

ECOCLUB.com: Many Greek environmentalists were against the assumption of the Olympic Games by Athens. So what is the legacy of the Olympic Games for Athens in terms of tourism promotion and sustainable infrastructure? Was it all worth the 10+ Billion? Or, to put it another way, if this sum had been spent on public transport, improving the Athenian Environment and depressed inner city areas over 5 years, rather than 2 weeks, would not it have been more effective?

Manolis Psarros: There are many different perspectives on this issue. I was quite skeptical when Athens was nominated as the host city of 2004 Olympic Games back in the 90s. Many questions were raised at the time; will we be able to organize successfully such a mega-event? Will it be worth the investment? Don’t we have other investment priorities primarily as a country and then as a city? Will the expected benefits outweigh the potential risks and negative impacts? The successful organization of the games along with the international recognition of our last-minute but efficient efforts had as a result, a strong sentiment of national pride amongst the Greek population and a positive promotion of Greece around the globe. However, not all of the aforementioned questions led to a positive answer. Greece did make it in organising the best ever Olympics until that point but many people still doubt the actual benefits and the return on investment for the country and the city. In my opinion, there are only a few but important benefits for the country as a whole but too many for Athens itself. For the country, the successful organization of 2004 Olympics was seen not only as a challenge we managed to overcome but as our own “YES – WE CAN” national statement primarily to ourselves and then to the rest of the world. For the city, a great number of urban regeneration & public infrastructure projects took place and massively enhanced the quality of life for millions of people. The considerable upgrading of the public transportation system (a new metro, new tram, new buses, new highways), the new Athens International Airport, the general overhaul of all Athens hotels and the 'unification of the archaeological sites'  project have significantly improved the standards of living and the city’s tourism product. In terms of visitor flows, Athens experienced a tourist boom in the post-Olympic period and for three years ina row by almost doubling its foreign tourist arrivals (2005 – 2007) while at the same time, the city got into the top-15 conference destinations globally in number of international meetings, according to the International Conference & Congress Association. As far as the environmental impact concerns, the Olympics have indeed deteriorated the local environment in some cases (eg. Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Centre at Schinias National Park) but at the same time speeded up the development of significant eco-friendly public infrastructures (eg. metro, new thermal busses with lower emissions, tram). Of course, this does not mean that we have a balanced equation here - performing well in some environmental sectors obviously does not mean that we have the right to ignore or taking lightly serious mistakes made into others, especially when it drives irreversible environmental deterioration.

It must be noted however, that the capitalisation of the Olympic brand and the efficient management of the Olympic legacy both in tangible & intangible terms is a never-ending process which brings with it even greater challenges than the organization of the games itself. Problems such us the misuse or no use at all of most of the Olympic venues, the lack of continuity and consistence in our national tourism campaigns, the state’s inadequate funds for urban regeneration & environmental projects must be faced responsibly in order to bring Athens’ course back on a positive track (especially after the drop in visitors’ numbers due to the economic recession & last December’s events). Launching new global attractions such as the New Acropolis Museum and the Cultural Park at Falliron (National Opera & Library) and targeted promotional campaigns such us the 'World of Athens' campaign, upgrading public spaces such as the 'Pedion tou Areos' park and the National Gardens are definitely positive developments for the city. Apparently, the efficient use of funds and resources on the post-Olympic period is the real challenge for every Olympic city but thankfully we do have a few good examples-to-follow to be based upon and build up our long term strategy. 

To answer the question, I am more than certain that Eur 10 bn could have been spent much more wisely for the common interest without having to organize the Games at all, though, the proper (and realistic) question to ask would be: would these colossal public infrastructures & global positive exposure ever been accomplished if we had not undertaken the responsibility to organize the Olympics in the first place? Based on the contemporary Greek history and the post-Olympic period’s record on public investments, this would be unlikely to have happened.

ECOCLUB.com: How optimistic are you about the willingness and ability of Greek local authorities to adopt greener practices, for example to introduce public transport, bicycle lanes even at the protest of organized private interests, or to introduce a proper waste management and recycling policy. Is something lacking in terms of central government policy (incentives / penalties) or was it too easy for Greece to attract tourists that everyone got complacent? Could a permanent decrease in visitor numbers actually benefit Greek Tourism?

Manolis Psarros: Starting from the end question, in a country where tourism accounts for 18% of the GDP and approximately 70% of tourist businesses are small & medium size enterprises, a permanent decrease in visitor numbers would have only negative impacts for the Greek tourism economy and the small local communities in particular. Tourism – even without ever being properly planned and adequately funded by the state – remains one of Greece’s strongest tools for evening out regional inequalities, bolstering a large number of related economic sectors and diffusing prosperity throughout the country and society. I must admit however that Greece became one of the world’s most popular destinations without any particular effort from either the public or the private sector for many decades. Hence, this era came to an end a long time ago. At this stage, Greece is facing tough competition from too many destinations which do not have such a diversified & naturally attractive tourism product, but a cheaper and in many cases better-organized one. In order to face competition, external negative influences and internal structural inefficiencies, Greek tourism should move from central administration models to local or regional decentralised administration systems & policies preferably by promoting the establishment of locally-managed DMOs. On the same course, local authorities should be empowered in terms of legal authority and economic capacity in order to be able to adopt greener practices and launch public transport programs without having to deal with the central state’s bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Greek local authorities could still take many steps on their own to reduce energy consumption and to use cleaner energy such as:

- creating building codes & standards that include practical, affordable changes that make buildings cleaner & more energy efficient.
- conducting energy audits to improve energy efficiency in municipal and private buildings.
- installing more energy efficient traffic and street lighting.
- implementing localised, cleaner electricity generation systems.
- using clean fuels and hybrid technologies for city buses, rubbish trucks, and other vehicles.
- implementing schemes to reduce traffic, such as congestion charges.
- creating waste-to-energy systems at landfills.
- improving water distribution systems and leak management.

In order to move from agenda to action and ensure an accelerated implementation of greener practices and sustainable development in general, Greek local authorities should invest in expertise knowledge, network with local government at international level and enquire from the central state authorities to provide technical assistance, analytical tools, and outreach support.

ECOCLUB.com: Luxury Condo Hotels and Golf Developments are touted by the proposed new National Land Use Plan as the new Golden Fleece that will help raise the quality of Greek tourism without raising the quantity of visitors and pressure on natural resources. Environmentalists but also Civil Engineers and many Tourism Practitioners are up in arms, fearing that concrete and second homes (‘paratourism?’) will overrun the remaining unspoiled parts of Greece. What is your view? Is there a case, especially in this economic climate, for zero tourism development in some pristine areas  and even degrowth in some developed ones?

Manolis Psarros: Considering that Greece was the only country in EU without specific national land use planning policy until this point, we must acknowledge the fact that the National Land Use Plan was a positive initiative from the state authorities. However, the primary version of the special zoning plan for tourism submitted for public consultation was too vague to protect Greece from the overdevelopment of coastal areas and the exhaustion of natural resources which has ruined much of Spain and other mass tourist destinations in the past. The plan was general, unclear and short-to-medium term focused, allowing the use of land for tourism almost everywhere, without specific prerequisites or restrictions. Though, the revised version - that was put into vote & finally approved – has been improved in terms of environmental protection directions but still lacking in terms of specific measures and carrying capacity applications.  Even though the plan theoretically aims to promote tourism development alongside environmental protection, by creating different zones for different levels of development, these zones are not strictly defined and that, in practice, provides space for uncontrolled tourism development. Major improvements and clarifications had to take place to ensure the protection of the natural environment and not to treat tourism as an activity primarily connected to public works and large-scale projects such as golf courses and large hotel complexes. Moreover, precise guidelines & restrictions of tourist activity in NATURA regions had to be included. It must be noted however, that this is the first time a plan refers to government obligations in terms of ports and other public infrastructure projects that need to be provided for both tourist & residential use. Besides, Greece has plenty of options to upgrade its tourism product and start attracting high-end tourists before start investing in Condo hotels (which by the way have been heavily criticized not only as not sustainable tourism projects but also as bad & risky products for the real estate industry & the customers) and other tourism structures of similar type. There are fundamental issues to be dealt with, that would enormously enhance the Greek tourism product and ensure destinations’ growth & economic viability such as the national heritage interpretation and promotion policies & applications, the archaeological sites and museum’s operational policy, the provision of visitors’ information, the quality of the tourism education & training system, the quality and diversity of public transportations, the effectiveness of the national tourism campaigns, the efficiency of the destination management & marketing strategies, the use of hi-tech & web applications for tourism among many others. In my perspective, the argument should always be “Sustainable Tourism Vs No tourism” instead of “Sustainable Tourism Vs Mass Tourism” no matter what the economic condition of a specific country or region is. In the end, not all places should become tourist destinations to be viable and tourism should not be faced as an economic panacea. Overdependence on tourism has been proved to be wrong in almost every case; therefore, a national and/or regional development policy should promote models of balanced economic development.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, you seem to be a part of the new generation of Greek Tourism Officials who have fully embraced the Internet - how useful is the Internet really in your tourism work and are Social Networks in particular a big plus, a fashion or a nuisance?

Manolis Psarros: Taking in consideration that the total number of web users has been recently calculated to 1.5 billion globally, we could easily see the Internet’s growing importance in the international travel & tourism industry. Indeed, people have become more familiar with internet search technology and the number of travel planning/purchasing sites has grown significantly during the last few years. As a result, approximately 60% to 70% of leisure travellers now use the Internet to plan some aspect of their travel while the percentage of leisure travellers making reservations online has grown to 40%-50%. Social media in particular, are playing an increasingly important role as information sources for travellers since consumers turn to social content to help their travel decisions. Moreover, research studies on travellers’ use of search engines for travel planning show that social media constitute a substantial part of the search results, indicating that search engines tend to direct travellers to social media sites. This fact also confirms the growing importance of social media in the online tourism domain. Consumers tend to use social media sites more and more either to get feedback from traveller written review sites (trip advisor) or to compare prices/offers while many people seem to trust more peer’s opinions rather than corporate communication. From the operator’s point of view, social media helps the shift from passive selling to active engagement and provides small-medium sized tourist enterprises the opportunity to boost their businesses with cost-efficient methods. However, for a social media campaign to be successful, staff should be dedicated into social media initiatives, hard metrics must be tied to company’s/organization’s success and local community & stakeholders should be heavily involved. In any case, successful outcomes should not be expected overnight – it takes some time to witness the first positive results. Therefore, my opinion is that social media are here to stay and in greater sophistication through even more interactive web platforms, tools & applications. After all word-of-mouth is still the best advertising a tourism business can get and the most powerful factor that helps people determine where they will go for a vacation. Finally, both Social Media and tourism bring people together at different levels; hence the efficient use of one could definitely boost or control the other.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much.

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