Recognized as the top tourism region in Greece, the South Aegean Islands receive 69% of their income from tourism, compared to the 65% of income the Ionian Islands registers. George Hatzimarkos announces how being titled European Region of Gastronomy for 2019 has inspired his government to think outside the box.
How much was the South Aegean region impacted by the Greek financial crisis?
The crisis was much harder for the big cities. Our region consists of forty-eight inhabited islands; here you will find places with drastically different economic conditions. We had some islands that lost a percentage of their population due to the financial crisis. The best example is Kalymnos, where 15 to 20% of its people fled to find more economic opportunities. However, the largest islands, known as star islands, like Mykonos and Santorini, did not lose their population. Indeed, island tourism can be a big part of the solution. I would call the islands ‘the windows of optimism.’
What do the South Aegean Islands have to offer in terms of gastronomy?
We are responsible for about 40% of all incoming tourism in Greece. We depend on tourism for more than 80% of our GDP, which means that we allocate the industry the highest portion of our budget, and the results have begun to show. The South Aegean Islands has been recognized as the European Region of Gastronomy for 2019, an award bestowed by a Barcelona-based organization, which will be the first time Greece holds this title. To anticipate this, we have built a plan to highlight each island’s unique personality. We have forty-eight islands, which is like having forty-eight different people. All have a different identity, a different personality. We established a frame to present ourselves through work with local communities. Not everybody is Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes or Patmos. People choose every place for its distinct traits and different people choose different places. It was a big challenge to design a product with that many variables; we practically made 48 products.
What infrastructure projects are further boosting tourism?
We have started to carry out studies to build infrastructure for a big seaplane network, including a plan to establish a fleet of 26 seaplanes to access 26 different islands. The price tag will not be more than 6 million euros and be 100% funded by our regional government. Private commercial operators can then freely utilize this infrastructure. Concerning meetings, incentives, conferencing and events tourism, the biggest convention ever held on Greek soil was in Rhodes, gathering around 15,000 people. Rhodes has the richest infrastructure in the country for these kinds of events. Finally, last year we finished an airport in Paros that helped the island create more awareness. In the old airport, we carried 25,000 passengers per year; now it handles 160,000 passengers.
What are some challenges this region has in obtaining investment?
The South Aegean Islands are considered to be one of the most developed regions in Europe thanks to Rhodes, Mykonos and Santorini; hence we have a big lack in funding from the EU because we are considered to be in less need than other regions. However, we have seventy-nine islands of which only forty-eight are inhabited. There are even some islands with only one person living on them, and thus a heavy demand for developmental funding.
What potential does the region have to develop renewable energy?
We are focusing on developing wind and solar power. For example, Rhodes has the most sunshine in Europe, receiving 340 sunny days per year. Second is Crete with 300 days. There is very high interest for solar and wind power because of this climate.