From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.
I am on the balcony of the Grande Bretagne, one of Athens’s most famous hotels, a tribute to old European grandeur in the shadow of the Acropolis, where democracy was born more than 2,000 years ago. From my perch above Constitution Square, I can see today’s democracy in action—demonstrators chant slogans and wave fists against the government they hold responsible for leading them into a fiscal firestorm. But Greeks also know what the panic-prone, 24-hour news cycle has overlooked: This ancient land has weathered worse storms, from Persian and Roman armies to Ottoman occupation and military junta. As my father often said to me, “We Greeks thrive on chaos.”
So while Greeks remain deeply shaken about the current crisis, they have a more sanguine long-term outlook. Which is why I am on my way to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. Word has reached me of a cultural renaissance.
During the past few decades, Greece barreled down the road of mass, and most definitely crass, tourism. More than 16 million international tourists visited the country in 2011, over a million more than in the previous year. That should be great news for a country that relies on tourism for economic growth. Yet the economic benefits from those holidaymakers are spiraling down, by some estimates dropping 10 to 15 percent last year. Today, a tourist in Greece spends an average of about $100 a day—including lodging, meals, and activities. This so-called vacation bargain carries a big price tag in terms of damage to the culture and the environment. Busloads clog fragile archaeological sites; packed-to-the-gills charter flights dump partying loads onto tiny islands; and overflowing cruise crowds spill into historic ports. The result: Once idyllic fishing hamlets and villages have been transformed into emporiums of cheap trinket shops and look-alike concrete hotels.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not foolish enough to think that a place should never change. But when that change is for the worse (“nothing is real here anymore,” one native of tourist-laden Santorini lamented), it’s time to reboot the system, lest tourism to this sun-drenched land conquer the country in a way that even centuries of invading empires failed to do. Enter Thessaloniki.
“There is nothing wrong with being a country of feta and olives!” insists Yiannis Boutaris, the gold-earringed, tattooed mayor. “These agricultural products are our heritage, not our problem. We want to be who we are. That’s why Starbucks and McDonald’s have had little success in this city. I want Thessaloniki to be a model for sustainable tourism in Greece,” Boutaris tells me in his office near the city’s waterfront, where bicycle lanes follow the edge of the Aegean. He is reacting to what an Athens official told me about the economic crisis: There is a fear that Greece will slide back into being a country of feta and olives. To Boutaris, that would be an improvement.
The 70-year-old former winemaker is promoting tourism that supports authenticity rather than trampling it. Jazz clubs blending Eastern and Western music are springing up in abandoned buildings. Chefs are forging more partnerships with local farmers and cooking up what many Greeks now agree is the best cuisine in the country (I concur, having had one of the finest meals I have ever eaten at the Epta Thalasses restaurant). And a potpourri of vibrant street cafés, outdoor markets, and art galleries tucked amid the city’s ancient ruins and modern architecture is bringing out the best of both. The creative energy is palpable.
Thessaloniki is the epicenter of this movement, but from Athens to Crete, a new course is being charted for one of the Mediterranean’s most popular travel destinations. “Greece was bent on gaining mass tourism and losing its soul. Now Greeks are heading back to their roots and talking about a sustainable future that embraces nature and culture,” says Nikki Rose, founder of Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries, a company that organizes tours in partnership with village artisans.
In Athens, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation is breaking ground this spring on a “cultural Noah’s ark”—a center (partially powered by solar energy) that will house the National Library and the Greek National Opera. In Thira on the island of Santorini, there is a visionary mayor, Anastasios Nikolaos Zorzos. “We want to change tourism for the better, rather than have tourism keep changing us,” he tells me.
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The Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) has issued a report on the future of tourism in Greece, stating it is time to “rethink our mistakes and seek a new approach.” Still, many Greeks fear hitting a brick wall when it comes to the national government, which has largely promoted dependency on low-budget, high-volume tourism. “The people are convinced, and now we hope the government will understand, that the tourism model we have followed for the last 30 years is no longer relevant to our future,” says Georgios Drakopoulos, SETE’s director general.
Is the country that gave democracy to the world, along with epic poems, great advances in science—and, yes, the word “chaos”—about to embark on a new golden age of Greek tourism? If only the oracle at Delphi were still around to tell us.