Tourism in Crete: Good news or bad?

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News are not very good for tourism in Crete

Think of it as owning a brand new 250,000-Euro Bentley Arnage.  When you first get it, people from all over come to see it, asking for a ride.  As you proudly drive around you get some scratches on the door, a dent in the wing, a smashed taillight.  Eventually, parts start to fall off, and as you pile up the mileage the engine becomes slow and sluggish.  And, because you never make repairs, or bother to get the engine tuned, the people, except for a few car buffs, will stop asking for a ride.  They’ll be off seeking rides with owners of newer cars, like a Porsche or Rolls-Royce.

Get the picture?  Now you have a pretty good view of the present-day tourism in Crete – a view which is expressed by many experts.  However, like most sad situations, there’s a bit of good news to go along with the bad.

According to Germany’s prestigious Die Zeit weekly newspaper, Greeks have persisted too long on the point of view that antiquities and philoxenia, its proverbial hospitality, will fill the hotels. “For too long nothing has been done,” said Rolf-Dieter Maltzahn, manager of the giant tour agency, TUI.  “The hotels, roads, airports and finally the service is not of the appropriate standard that customers require as a matter of course.”

In an interview this past July in the newspaper, Mr. Maltzahn went on to say: “Especially in comparison with Turkey, Greece doesn’t look very good. In the beginning of the year 2000 there was an equal interest in both countries. Since then the eastern neighbour has gone far ahead. In 2004 4.1 million citizens of Germany travelled to Turkey, nearly double as much as to Greece.”

The situation in Germany was a benchmark of the attitudes of tourists from many other countries, including Britain, the Netherlands and Italy.  Last year, according to many local officials, tourism in Crete fell to an all-time low.

“It was the worst year for tourists since tourism first began,” said Spiros Danellis, the energetic mayor of Hersonissos, Crete’s largest and most important tourist designation.  “And this season – from May through mid-July – started off in the same way, perhaps worse.” (Editor’s note: See the full in-depth interview with Mayor Danellis in the November issue of this newspaper.)

Of course, the world is all too painfully aware of the horrific events which occurred this year in Turkey on July 16, and in Egypt the following week.  Following the bombings in the two resort towns many tour companies switched reservations for holiday destinations to Crete, which is considered relatively safe from terrorist attacks.

As a result, hotel managers and shop keepers went from sitting around with their heads in their hands, to scurrying about in a frantic attempt to find additional staff.  While the final number of tourists is far from being counted, it is generally believed that the overall figures for the entire season will show an increase over last year.  But does this paint a false picture of Crete’s current tourism status?  Many experts think so.  But they also believe that by taking advantage of the good, which came to Crete as a result of a very bad situation, the area can be rejuvenated and start to work its way back as one of the most popular holiday destinations in the Mediterranean.

“It will take a lot of hard work,” Mayor Danellis said. “But it can be done, and I think it must start with the shop keepers.  The costs of hotel and apartment reservations are very competitive with other areas, but when visitors go out for dinner or a drink, the prices are so high that the total cost of the holiday averages out much higher.”

This observation was seconded by Mr. Maltzahn.  “Everybody who had to pay four Euros for a coffee or five Euros for a beer in tourist areas will possibly look for a destination with lower extras for next year,” he said.  To realize the dream of sun, beaches and sea is in any case cheaper than many other places.”

While Mayor Danellis accepts the fact that the price of the holiday must be kept within reason, he doesn’t believe that it is the only criteria for a Cretan vacation.  He said that bargain-basement tourism is not Crete’s goal.  “We presently have many quality tourists, and we are looking to reach out to expand that market,” he said, pointing to the Hersonissos’ new professional golf course as a prime example of this effort.  “In addition, we can no longer depend on the traditional summer holiday season.  We must extend into the winter months, and take advantage of our wonderful year-round weather.”

Michael Karavas, chief of Munich’s top tour operator for Greece, Attika Reisen, also believes that’s the reason Crete is falling behind other countries.  “From November to April Greece is disappearing from the world map of tourism,” he said.  “While other Mediterranean destinations put on tourism the whole year around, the hotels (in Crete) close, the flight connections stop, the employees go into hibernation and tourist areas become ghost towns.”  However, he doesn’t believe that this situation will be changing anytime soon.  “Greece doesn’t have its own charter flight company, which could offer direct flights to Crete during the winter.  Changing planes at Athens is too awkward and expensive for most tourists.”

While there are varied opinions on improving Cretan tourism, everyone agrees that the main problem right now is the use of illegal quads (four-wheel motorbike).  “People are dying, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said a Hersonissos policeman who wished to remain anonymous.  “We know they should be illegal, but we’re told to allow them.”

The quads, which were designed and manufactured strictly for off-road use, have suddenly appeared on Crete’s public roads by the thousands.  It is estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 are currently available for rent throughout Crete.  They are considered very dangerous on regular roads because the extremely narrow wheel-base, intended for manoeuvring on dirt or sand, causes them to easily spin out of control and flip over on pavement – especially in the hands of inexperienced operators, which comprise 90 percent of those who rent them, since they’re doing so for the first time.

“Tourists come here for a good time, and they expect to feel safe,” said the same police officer.  “And, it’s our job to protect them.  It’s very frustrating.  They’re going home in medivacs, or in bandages – or they’re not going home at all.”

Physician Stefan Hoeing, an emergency room doctor at the Agios Nikolaos General Hospital, said he’s never experienced anything like this before.  “The people that rent these things to our tourists ought to spend one night in the emergency room with me and see what their victims look like.”  Dr. Hoeing, who himself rides a motorcycle, said quads are much more dangerous than two-wheeled motorbikes – by far.

Doctor Manthos Mattheakis, a noted orthopaedic surgeon who works with medical clinics in Malia, Hersonissos and Gouves, also said he treated more patients with broken limbs, or worse, than ever before in such a short period of time.  “The overwhelming majority of these accidents involve young people from England and Ireland who rent quads then go out for a good time,” Dr. Mattheakis said.  “This is not normal – this must be stopped!”  Both doctors agreed that the quads should be banned from public roads immediately.

How did such a monstrous situation manifest itself in an idyllic holiday retreat?  According to Mayor Danellis, it happened with a stroke of the pen by Deputy Tourism Minister Liaskos.  “We tried to keep the quads off the road, but Minister Liaskos overruled us and made them legal,” he said.  Mayor Danellis added, sadly, that there were four deaths in Hersonissos alone attributed to the quads.  “If that’s not enough reason to get rid of them, I don’t know what is.”

A VIEW OF THE SEASON FROM THE FRONT LINES

We hear enough about this season’s tourism from government and travel officials, but what do the local shopkeepers – the front line troops – have to say?  The Crete Gazette went around the island and asked a few of them.  Here are their reports.

Steve Moorman & Viki Kuhlke of the Mantraki Hotel in Agios Nikolaos www.mantraki.4t.com:

“From the hotel’s point of view, our tourism figures are up by 500 percent. We are also base loading with students in the winter and pushing ourselves as a winter holiday destination. The town as a whole is up by about 10 percent but the nature of the tourism has been away from bar oriented clients to the sort of tourists wanting car hire and exploring the island. The restaurants and tavernas have not done well and the tendency is to keep increasing prices to compensate for lack of custom. Bars are also guilty of this with prices as high as five Euros for a small Amstel in certain places. Small hotels and pensions have generally suffered because they rely on passing trade and many people, even backpackers, now reserve their accommodation in advance via the internet. Difficult to explain to an 80 year old pension owner from Agios Nikolaos!

“The staff in the shops and the police could be a little more friendly too. Actually the word I’m looking for is RUDE! I know about the local culture and all that, but throwing goods and change at people is not good if you want them to go back telling their friends how charming and friendly Crete is.  The point is that we are up 500 percent because we smile a lot. When everyone does it, we’ll all do fine. Tourists do not want to hear about the woes of the hotel/bar/taverna owner and how he will “not be able to feed his small children”. They are on holiday to forget their own problems. They don’t want to hear somebody else’s.”

Lucia Jongbloed of the Toedeledokie Cafe-Bar, Agios Nikolaos:
“For me it was better than last year, but not a lot.  More people but the bills are much higher. However, all my regulars who did not come last year because of the Olympics came this year again. I have an all-inclusive hotel next to me, that was last year only all-inclusive for Dutch, but this year also Italians and English.  I can count on one hand the Dutch with green (all-inclusive) bracelets who came for a drink. Most of them come the last day for a coffee and a lot of questions before they go back home.

“On the other side of Toedeledokie bar is Hermes Hotel and they improved this year a lot in service and luxury. They want to make a more noticeable difference in the all-inclusive and their 3 star hotel.  And that is good for me, they have money to spend.

“Agios is no longer a town with mostly British tourists, this year we had French, German, Russian, Bulgarian, Italian, Dutch, etc.   Many of the apartments around my bar are opening again. There used to be a lot more open, but they were getting older, broken furniture, no chairs on the balcony, concrete small beds, no airco. In Hersonissos and Malia the apartments are maintained better, plus modern and clean. I hope the owners around me will renew and re-open them again.”

Tony and Chris Bowes of Neraida Restaurant, Kokkini Hani:
“We were a bit worried at the start of the season, like from May through the early part of July.  We had a full staff hired but there wasn’t enough business for everyone.  To keep everyone working, we had shorter shifts.  Then in July we started getting very busy, and everyone went full time.  From July until now, we’ve had one of our busiest periods – shades of when we first opened in the heyday of Crete tourism in the early 90s.

“The tourists, in general, seemed to enjoy their holidays very much – more so than in recent years.  We think everyone had a fright in the beginning of the season.  Then, when the people did start to come, the local shopkeepers and apartment owners were more demonstrative of their appreciation.  We certainly hope that feeling remains.

Gabi Parma, Manager of Aloi Hotel, Anissara:
“The question was, how was, or is, the season this year? The first three months, May, June and July, were not good at all. Even in July, which is high season, we had a half empty hotel, for the first time ever.  Then came August which was very good for everybody.  It was difficult to find empty beds on this island. September also is a rather good month and it looks like even October is going to be good. Some voices say that we, which means the hotels, should be open also in November. I personally agree with this thought, but I doubt the flight companies will agree – and since they have the power . . .  and the lack of organization, of course . . .

So to summarize, the season was for us, all told, not better than the last one, and I think for many people the time has come more and more to think about work in the winter, since the summer doesn’t provide us with enough income anymore.   But that is another subject . . . I hope this was okay, and I’m looking forward to writing an article about the awful all-inclusive phenomenon!”

Yiannis Daskalakis Co-owner of Provlita Taverna in Kalives:
“My brother, who is my partner, and I both are very pleased with the business this year.  We’ve been very busy.  It looks like about a 40 percent increase over last year.”

Eleni Nikolodaki, Owner of Trendy’s Land in Kalives:
“We had good business this year, but mainly from the Greek tourists.  Not so much from the tourists.  However, all in all, last year was actually much better in my shop.”

Manolis Manatakis, Proprietor of Flisvos Car Rental in Kalives:
“It was a good year for business. My customers are mainly British, but quite a few Scandinavians as well.  I’m very pleased that car rentals were up around 10 percent over last year, and that goes for my offices in Almerida and Kavros as well.”

Soula Askianaki, Owner of Ask For Travel, Kokkini Hani:
“For the local travel business, booking excursions and sightseeing trips, it was a bit down from last year.  Like everyone else, we started off slow, of course, in May, June and July.  From August until, there were many more people in Kokkini Hani, but they seemed to be on very tight budgets.  In fact, I’ve found that many tourists this year – I’d say about 90 percent – only came for one week, instead of the more usual two weeks.  This allowed them very little time for excursions.”

Catrin Johansson, Owner of Body Language Shop, Star Beach:
“Since my shop is located within the Star Beach complex, I must rely on the beach’s traffic, and this year there was much less than last.  The early part of the year was especially bad, but even August and September was way off.  For me, it’s been two bad years in a row, but . . . we’ll see what happens next year.  I’m planning some important changes, and I’m confident business on Crete will improve.”

Christian Bruns, Representative for Hotel Plan Tour Agency:
“I was a little worried in the beginning of the season.  Things were so bad we only worked part time for a while.  But then things really picked and we became very busy.  On the whole, I figure we’re about 40 percent above last year for the same time period.  Swiss tourists are not your average Cretan package holiday makers.  They are more upscale, and they have more of a budget for the extras, over and above their air fare and hotel.

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