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What Will Happen If Energy Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea More Political than Economic in Nature ?

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By Chris Deliso

November 19, 2020

Although regional states have for decades been locked in competition over the region’s largely offshore untapped energy resources, a good question remains regarding the extent to which resource competition is more of an economic or political issue.

Map by Euractuv

My own exhaustive research, interviews with industry experts and comments from officials has informed the consideration that as of 2020, disputes over fossil fuels deposits are being primarily generated to support territorial claims, and build up support from interested international parties (such as governments and energy corporations) to support these rival claims.

This is occurring at a time when Turkey is asserting its Mavi Vatan or ‘Blue Homeland’ maritime doctrine, while Greece seeks to expand its sea borders from 6 to 12 nautical miles, and while Cyprus attempts to assert the inviolability of its proclaimed maritime EEZ against Turkish hostile drillship activity.

At the same time, in summer 2020 Turkey also began seismic research in contested areas of Greek water claimed by Ankara under an otherwise unrecognized maritime border agreement it inked with the Tripoli-based GNA regime in Libya. In response, Greece achieved maritime border deals with Italy and Egypt, and agreed to go to Hague arbitration to resolve a maritime border dispute with Albania. Greece has historically criticized Turkey’s non-recognition of international maritime law and Ankara’s disinterest in international arbitration.

In this context, the 17 October 2020 announcement that Turkey had discovered hydrocarbons in the Black Sea, near the borders of Romanian and Bulgarian waters added an intriguing new element to the energy competition. President Erdoğan presented the find as complementary to the ongoing disputed explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters, and added that it could enhance the state’s capacity to develop its own energy sector and infrastructure. As with the other finds to be discussed, whether or not anything ever materializes (in terms of formal pipeline construction) is less important than the political implication that Turkey believes it has Black Sea energy potential, and can use this to offset its potential relationships, gains and losses in Aegean and Mediterranean fields.

ENERGY EXPLORATION EVENTS AS TRIGGERS FOR CONFLICT AND POLICIES ON MARITIME BORDERS

Even though commentators often conflate the concept of Neo-Ottomanism with the ideas and rule of President Erdoğan in Turkey, the pre-2003 Kemalist system was predicated on a similar vision. The difference was simply in the type of action or perceived provocation that would be required to incur a reaction from the military-led authorities in Ankara.

Energy was one such case. In 1973, following the announced discovery of oil off of Thasos – an island well to the west of Turkey – the Turkish government enacted a policy of ‘gray zones’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, which intended to thwart Greek maritime energy exploration on its own territory as a matter of course. This occurred at a time of pivotal tension between two governments that had arisen following respective military coups; unsurprisingly, the ultimate result of the energy dispute came in a peripheral manner with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus the following July.

The sentiment that energy resource competition is intrinsically linked to conflict remains today. Turkey views itself as unfairly restricted within the ‘Gulf of Antalya’ by Greek maritime claims, while Greek officials in 2020 questioned why Turkish energy research vessels were named after ‘conquerors and pirates’ rather than scientists or explorers. There is definitely an element of optics at work, in that all utilization of such vessels is inevitably featured in domestic and international media and conveys implicit meaning about the former Ottoman zone of control.

ISRAEL’S KEY POSITION, ROLE AND ALLIANCE STRUCTURES

The geographic location of major oil and gas deposits such as the Leviathan field in the maritime triangle between Israel, Cyprus and Egypt became critical in reshaping geopolitical alliances after work intensified in the energy industry around 2010 (as we reported at the time).

The possibility that Israel could for the first time possibly become a major energy player, and even the source of a new pipeline route to Southeastern Europe that could at the same time decrease Russian control over energy exports to the Continent, remade historic alliances.

This was exacerbated by the AKP government’s increasingly pro-Islamist stance and high-profile incidents such as the May 2010 Mavi Marmaris incident that brought Turkish-Israeli relations to an all-time-low. Thus, whereas in the prior Kemalist military-secular system Turkey had often been a preferred ally for Israel over Greek governments that were themselves often friendly to Israeli’ Arab enemies, the new reality provided an opportunity for rapprochement between Greece and Israel.

This reached its culmination in late 2019 and into 2020, when a US and EU-backed EastMed pipeline plan from Israel to Europe via Cyprus and Greece (including Egyptian cooperation) was signed.

At the same time, Turkey heading into 2020 was taking steps to improve its own diplomatic relations with Israel, and pushing the concept of an Israel-Turkey alternate pipeline. While the reality of volatile territories in between the two makes this somewhat tentative, the Turks have argued that it would be far cheaper than the alternate sea route. Of course, it would also give them all of the geostrategic leverage over their Greek and Cypriot rivals.

Since experts in the energy field believe the depth of resources, cost of extraction compared to expected market rates, and trends in terms of alternate energy options may make the whole project unfeasible, it is thus clear from the research (and reading between the lines of different diplomatic statements) that the ultimate ‘prize’ of an energy alliance with Israel is all of the other benefits that come with it. Turkey has not changed its Islamist course, but remains pragmatic enough to recognize Israel as a regional superpower, and knows that improving its relations with both Washington and Moscow can be achieved in certain respects through closer ties of any kind. Energy is one such relationship, and whether or not the stated projects ever materialize is less relevant than is the idea of being visible in the game and not conceding defeat to the other side. That is the approach both Greek and Turkish leaders are taking.

CONCLUSIONS

In additions to offshore hydrocarbons fields, the regional rivalry over energy is likely to become increasingly territorial as EU and UN-mandated renewable energy sources will both compete with and complement the established sources. And it will also require more access to territorial (including maritime territory) for things like wind farms and hydropower.

Thus, in all respects regional states (and the alliance structures they create and expand) will likely tend to manifest energy projects (especially in the political and media spotlight), even when they are not likely or credible, if they can in some way remain as sort of placeholders for national and territorial interests.

 Therefore, analysts would do well to consider the general hypothetical question of what elements will become most significant, should energy disputes in the region in fact be more politically than economic driven.

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

What Role Will Strategic Anniversaries Play in Regional Events?

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By Chris Deliso

November 18, 2020

Turkish President Erdoğan visited the divided city of Famagusta, Cyprus on 15 November, controversially calling for a ‘two-state solution’ to the Cyprus conflict. He gave the visit enhanced significance by pointing out that it was the 37th anniversary of the creation of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a status which no country save Turkey has ever acknowledged).

While few would have marked the date on their calendar as a potential indicator of new diplomatic escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean, in hindsight it was perfectly predictable- as was the official condemnation statement from Greece’s foreign ministry, which called the Turkish leader’s visit an ‘unprecedented provocation’ in violation of UN resolutions. Greece and Greek Cypriots oppose Turkey’s plans to build up the Turkish-controlled former Greek-inhabited empty area of Famagusta, known as Varosha.

THE GAUNTLET IS IN SIGHT

Emotionally and historically loaded anniversaries such as the above are only going to increase in number and intensity in the next decade, as Greece’s 2021 independence bicentennial will be followed immediately the centennial of the Greece-Turkish population exchanges and the 1923 creation of the Turkish state, climaxing with the 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 2024. Along with these are many other smaller accompanying anniversaries that will both have political resonance and be used as staging-points for announcements and events.

On 10 October 2020, I explored this question in a LinkedIn article titled ‘Anniversaries and Analysis: the Importance of Sophisticated Modeling for Eastern Mediterranean Events, 2020-30.’ The article gave a longer overview of some of the key events to come, by name and by type, as well as some suggestions for creating a system (ideally, though special software) for collating all relevant anniversaries with cross-categorical applications for future events as well.

This would provide anyone interested in the region with better and more precise advance warning of likely event triggers and dates at which certain events could manifest or be discussed in the media, by politicians, or in the form of public gatherings with political import.

My article also discussed complex overlapping anniversaries and (otherwise unrelated) unfolding events, and how this can be assessed in events mapping for the region.

BENEFITS OF ANALYTICAL EXCHANGE: CROSS-COORDINATION OF EVENTS AND ADVANCE WARNING

Even without an advanced technological platform in existence, simple awareness of the major ongoing and recurring anniversaries, coupled with an understanding of dates and periods to watch for other reasons (i.e., elections, military exercises, treaty deadlines, etc.) will give analysts a good degree of insight into what the more and less likely outcomes are for the target period in the region.

This is aided by the known tendency of regional political and religious leaders to associate certain national, ethnic and historic value and relationships to their cherished anniversaries- and of course, their orientation towards the anniversaries of the adversary. We can assess with a certain degree of likelihood how such regional actors will act and how they will orient the celebration of historic anniversaries to local and national objectives. In most cases, we will find that this approach contrasts quite significantly with that of Western European leaders (not to mention groups from elsewhere around the world).

An example of howunplanned contemporaneous events impact scheduled anniversaries is the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, which has seriously undermined amd altered the trajectory of Greek bicentennial events, with the Greek 2021 committee having to change its entire approach to event support in advance due to public movement restrictions stemming from the crisis.

CONCLUSIONS

Taking some time to organize and document a large sample size of regional anniversaries will be of increasing value to any individual or organization tasked with analyzing regional events in the decade to come.

While anniversaries in the Eastern Mediterranean have always had a potent impact on political, religious and social affairs, what is striking about the upcoming period is the total stack-up of events in all countries in the area. Particularly with Turkey under the AKP government perceiving itself as being on a historic mission of restoring the former imperial greatness of the Ottomans, it is going to be a very complex and likely dangerous time in the region. An awareness of the key anniversaries will provide analysts with a timetable and schedule of events- allowing an opportunity to prepare for the reverberation of these events before they occur.

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

How Will Natural Disasters and Environmental Issues Affect National Policies and Outcomes?

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By Chris Deliso

November 14, 2020

Greece and Turkey sit atop fault lines that have historically triggered earthquakes. These have had significant implications for public safety, the economy, political stability and diplomatic relations. In a region where so much remains rigidly fixed according to ‘red lines’ of policy and predictable political behavior, the unpredictable power of natural disasters – earthquakes as well as other uncontrollable events – adds an intriguing extra dimension to analytical calculations.

Image uploaded to ResearchGate by K. Rockwell and captioned:

“Tectonic map of the eastern Mediterranean region showing the North Anatolia fault zone relative to other faults in Turkey and the Aegean Sea (from Barka, 1992).”

RECENT SEISMIC ACTIVITY PROVIDES DIPLOMATIC EXAMPLE

On 30 October 202020, a 7.0 earthquake struck Greece’s eastern Aegean Sea near the island of Samos, and caused extensive damage along the Anatolian coast, including eight deaths in the Turkish city of Izmir. Early reports from the Turkish government stated 20 people had died and almost 800 were injured due to the earthquake.

 It was a reminder that the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean comprises an active seismic zone- just one of the historic environmental risk factors that can cause unexpected events, causing opportunities and stresses alike for the power

In a podcast presentation on Greek foreign policy with the London School of Economics’ Hellenic Observatory  on 5 November 22020, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias contrasted the Turkish response following the earthquake of the week previous to the “earthquake diplomacy” of summer 1999.

For those who can still recall, that was when major earthquakes hit both countries, leading to unprecedented bilateral cooperation and for Greece to drop its opposi5ion to Turkish EU membership negotiations. In the current case, Dendias noted, Turkey responded to an earthquake by merely continuing with its disputed offshore hydrocarbons research activity in Greek waters.

The reference to “earthquake diplomacy” was interesting because the natural disasters of 1999, and the humanitarian spirit that emerged in the neighboring countries, created a new and unplanned geopolitical situation in Europe. Numerous (mainly northern European) countries had to that point duplicitously told Turkey in private that they supported Turkish EU membership, but simply could not override the Greek veto. However, when Greece stopped objecting due to the unforeseen natural disaster, their bluff was called.

Thus, from 1999, EU countries that were never actually in favor of Turkish membership in the bloc were forced to come up with ever more hoops for the country to jump through, in order to keep the Turks out. This directly aided the rise of Erdogan and his criticisms of the EU – very often, wit some amount of accuracy – that the bloc has behaved unfairly and hypocritically in denying Turkish EU membership. Over time, this has merely hardened positions.

While one could hypothetically have projected such a reaction coming from the emotional reaction of like-minded Mediterranean peoples in the case of the 1999 earthquakes, no one to my knowledge modeled such a scenario before that time. And so, when media and politicians discuss and debate EU-Turkey relations today, the seminal role of the great unanticipated event – yet one that should have been historically predictable – remains forgotten, in the case of the 1999 earthquakes as setting the context for subsequent geopolitical events.

COMMODIFICATION OF ENVIRONMENTAL EVENTS IN THE UN FRAMEWORK

Beyond earthquakes, maritime disasters such as storms and floods have also historically afflicted the region, playing a strong role particularly in the life of the islands and coastal areas. Such phenomena are particularly strong in winter, though now more common throughout the year as even freak tornados and sea-storms have ravaged the Greek coast in recent years.

While such events have always been common factors of life, the more recent inclusion of a new contextual element – the mantra of ‘climate change,’ as codified in the 2015 Paris Climate Accords – will prove increasingly tempting for both local officials and international bureaucrats and bankers looking to expand their portfolios in response to (and in line with) events of nature.

A short video by reporter John Stossel reveals the incoherence and inconsistencies of the Treaty, which was nevertheless lionized by the media and politicians supporting the UN worldview as a great success.

For a more in-depth study of the topic, see a May 2017 publication by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “The Legal and Economic Case Against the Paris Climate Treaty: Canceling U.S. Participation Protects Competitiveness and the Constitution,” by Christopher C. Horner and Marlo Lewis. Of course, President Trump kept his campaign promise, and on 4 November 2020 the US officially left the Paris Accords, leading the UN to publish a statement that it “regretted” the decision.

For its part, Greece tends to be (regardless of political party in power) a dependable member of the globalist camp, often calling on the primacy of international law- especially when it comes to it s territorial disputes with Turkey. The latter has always been more nationalist and independent-minded, but has especially been so since the AKP came to power in 2003.

In 2017, following the US withdrawal from the scheme, then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the leftist Syriza party announced at a Paris climate meeting that Greece would continue its pledges to the treaty.

“We are reconfirming our commitment today and we jointly sent a very important message which we hope everyone will heed,” Kathimerini reported Tsipras as saying. Since then, his successors in the more conservative Nea Dimoktratia government have been less vocal about the treaty, but they have not sought to pull out of it either. Greece’s EU membership means its foreign policy must align with that of Brussels, and its perennial role as a debt-slave nation means it could not conduct an independent policy even if it wanted.

Therefore, it is most likely that Greece will continue to use weather conditions as a financial instrument to benefit from, within whatever mechanisms the UN and bankers allow.

The case of non-EU member Turkey is somewhat different. The country enjoys much more independence in policy formation, and has thus far successfully resisted pressure to join the scam. But to a large extent, this seems to be not out of principle but rather over the terms.

An August 2020 article from Climate Home News explained Turkey’s decision not to ratify the Paris Accords- making it the only G20 country not to do so, and only one of seven in the UN not to do so. The articles got unwittingly close to the heart of the scam behind the Accord in discussing Ankara’s rationale for objections.

“Turkey has a peculiar beef with the Paris Agreement, stemming from its decision to sign up to the convention as a developed country,” the report read. “Turkey has since argued that it is a developing country and has won special circumstances, allowing it to opt out of supplying finance. But it still cannot access climate cash, a condition President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said must change if Turkey is to ratify the agreement.”

In other words, the whole thing is a shell game for financiers, and the Turks are wise to it.

Without saying it in as many words, this article reveals that the Turkish leader understood the scam of the Paris Accords, and about how the entire premise of it was on the mass reallocation of wealth under the pretense of climate change-linked problems.

Turkey is also in the position of several OPEC countries, which refuse to join the Paris deal because of their fossil fuel energy production. Since Turkish foreign policy continues to envision offshore energy extraction as an imperative – even and particularly because this involves a territorial dispute with Greece and Cyprus – Turkey will remain tied to a policy of resistance when it comes to the Paris Accord. Even if nothing ever comes of the offshore extraction due to technical or market reasons, the territorial claims underlying the policy will likely keep retention of the policy an imperative for the Turkish government.

CONCLUSIONS- MORE OF THE UNEXPECTED, AND EXPECTATIONS UNMET

As the risk of earthquakes and other natural disasters remain chronic, analysts must continue to keep in mind their potential for causing short-term disruption to economies, public safety and even political stability. Istanbul itself is overdue for a major earthquake, and large-scale destruction in that city would obviously have massive impact for Turkey and the region.

In other regards such as climate-change obligations, the already destroyed tourism-based economies following 2020 Covid-19 restrictions are going to be slow to recover. Some industry insiders believe it will take until 2025 or 2027 to return to levels of 2019. In 2020, Greece suffered a roughly 85% decrease in tourism.

It is likely that future restrictions on the industry will see environmental and public health measures seamlessly converge, further restricting the profitability of small- and medium-sized enterprises particularly and contributing to poverty. And all of this is not even considering the risk of armed conflict, which will remain high through the Eastern Mediterranean anniversary season of the 2020s.

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

How Could the Istanbul Canal Project Affect Regional Stability?

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By Chris Deliso

October 28, 2020

Frequently overlooked because its future is unclear, the Istanbul Canal project tops the list of analytical issues because it has relevance for the entire balance of economic, military and political power between Greece and Turkey – and, quite possibly, for the environmental health of the Black Sea and Aegean/Mediterranean Seas.

My first key analytical question concerns a project that may never happen. However, its implications are so significant that it must be considered from several viewpoints.

In April 2013, Hurriyet Daily News reported  that the Turkish government was moving ahead with something that then-Prime Minister Erdoğan whimsically called a “crazy project”: to connect the Black Sea and Marmara Sea by means of a new canal, something that would effectively make the historic core of Istanbul’s European side into an island.

First declared by the Turkish leader during his 2011 re-election campaign, the canal as of 2013 was slated to be a 45-to-50-kilometer waterway that will “link the inner Marmara Sea to the Black Sea, according to plans. The canal will be 25 meters deep and up to 150 meters wide.” The original budget was set for $12 billion, with a completion date of 2023, to match the national independence centennial.

The government’s argument (then and thereafter) was that a new canal would lessen the congestion of tanker traffic from the Bosporus, limiting the risk of vessel collisions in the busy waterways surrounding Istanbul. Nevertheless, safety standards in the Bosporus have been modernized in recent decades and collisions are very rare.

As of 2020, construction had not started, but domestic opposition in Turkey (especially in Istanbul, where an opposition candidate had won Erdoğan’s former mayoral post) was rising on cost, environmental and corruption concerns.  In January 2020, it was reported that property along the planned canal route had been purchased by close relatives of the Turkish president and his close allies, the Qatari royal family.

In December 2019, the new Istanbul authorities announcing they were withdrawing municipal support for the Protocol that oversees construction plans. Despite this development, the national government continued with its plans, announcing the first tenders in March 2020.

WHY THIS HAS GEOSTRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

It is highly likely that the idea of a new Istanbul canal emerged from the general trajectory of naval policy innovations that have included offshore energy exploration in contested waters and a declared Exclusive Economic Zone with the factional government in Tripoli. In this analysis, a second canal becomes important as a legal response: it would allow Turkey to go beyond the 1936 Monttreaux Convention, which grants free passage to all vessels using the Bosporus and which limits military vessels within that strait to countries sharing a Black Sea border.

Erdoğan himself alluded to an unspecified ‘political’ aspect of a new canal in discussing the issue in 2020. As critics have noted, it would not make sense for commercial shipping to pay fees to go through a new canal considering the existing presence of the Bosporus, which in any case has not seen a major accident in many years.

Thus, where the political calculations become more serious is in terms of how Turkey could leverage the facilitation of non-Black Sea powers’ navies into that sea by use of a new canal. Whether the great power in question by China, the US or some other, the question remains as to how Turkey could seek to trade political favors by allowing such an engagement. Would it allow a US fleet access to the Black Sea, perhaps, in exchange for allowing it to annex northern Cyprus? Would it allow Chinese vessels into the sea in return for some military or economic cooperation?

The only guarantee is that such a scenario would be highly negative for Greek interests, as the canal represents a potential maritime asset that Greece cannot match.

ECOLOGICAL ISSUES

Local opponents of the canal project have cited fears that construction will destroy forests, contaminate groundwater, and eliminate a lake that is vital for the drinking water of 20 percent of city residents. Making Istanbul an island would also have the result of exposing it to more extreme weather in future. But the biggest fear is actually much more far-reaching. In January 2020, Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe argued that opening an artificial waterway that would flood both the Black and Marmara Seas with new water could lead to an international environmental disaster capable of permanently changing the hydrological balance of the seas.

If such an event were to happen, it could also have a severe impact on the economies of all regional countries, particularly if maritime species were adversely affected. Nothing similar to what Turkey envisions has been tried in this region since the Suez Canal, and there is no firm guarantee that it can be completed in a way that does not harm the environment. Thus, far from being an issue of simple national will, it is one that affects all nations having a maritime border- from Russia to Spain.

WHAT THE PROJECT SAYS ABOUT THE TURKISH PRESIDENT- LEGACY ISSUES

An interesting and completely overlooked aspect of the Canal Istanbul project is what it says about the man who envisioned it. Since 2003, President Erdoğan has systematically dismantled the entire Kemalist system upon which modern Turkey was founded, opting instead for the romantic-imbued former great Islamic empire of the Ottomans. Yet with the canal project, it seems that he is not content to compete with either the man who conquered the city (Mehmet II) or the one who expanded the empire to its greatest degree (Suleiman the Magnificent).

No, with the canal project’s plan for a historic change to the very physicality of the city, what we are seeing with Erdoğan now is perhaps a personal competition with the very man who built the city in the first place- Emperor Constantine the Great. Indeed, there would be no greater way for the Turkish leader to put his stamp of authority (and by extension, the Turkish nation’s in general) on the storied city than by fundamentally altering its very physical existence for the first time since the 4th century. Whether or not he actually has this intention is immaterial, because it will become part of the nationalist narrative, should he succeed in completing the project.

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 7: Panos Kloutsiniotis, Ladolea Olive Oil

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 14, 2020

Olive oil is one of the most iconic and internationally recognized natural products associated with Greece among the global public. When Greek brothers Panos and Thanos Kloutsiniotis sought to realize their vision for production of the highest quality olive oil under the label Ladolea, they could not have anticipated that a global pandemic would someday challenge their domestic sales, due to the sharp decline in tourist numbers to Greece in 2020.

Thus, while not a tourism entity in and of itself, Ladolea has been affected too by the 2020 crisis- as this interview with Panos Kloutsiniotis reveals. In it, we learn more about the brothers’ philosophy behind Ladolea olive oil, its production, and the challenges that they have overcome during the crisis.

Despite the challenges, however, the Athens-based company continues to succeed due to the inherent quality of its core products, which are synonymous with Greece and the country’s culinary, cultural and historic identity worldwide.

Some Preliminary Details: Food Science and Health Benefits of Ladolea Olive Oils

The attractively-presented Ladolea website contains key information regarding not only the individual varieties of olive oil for sale, but also the scientific findings on the health benefits of the company’s oils.

Indeed, according to the website, Ladolea’s Megaritiki variety Extra Virgin Olive Oil “has been analyzed by Dr. Prokopios Magiatis and Dr. Eleni Meliou at the faculty of Pharmacy in the National Kapodistrian University of Athens and is certified that (it) provides the ‘superior’ 989 mg / Kg (> 250 mg/Kg) of hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, or their derivatives.”

Olive oil in general is considered a food rich in anti-oxidants. But Ladolea’s Megaritiki is “the most antioxidant olive oil of this variety produced in Greece,” the website continues, and one of the most anti-oxidant-rich olive oils in the world.

Tests have also revealed that Ladolea’s oils contain much higher than average levels of “oleocanthal and oleacin, which present important biological activity,” and which “have been related with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cardioprotective and neuroprotective activity.”

As the Coronavirus scare of 2020 has put an unprecedented new focus on human health, these beneficial aspects of olive oil are being noted by more and more people, wherever they may be in the world, who seek to implement the Greek diet to whatever extent possible. As such, while the crisis has been a challenge for Ladolea as much as for most other Greek companies, it does have a silver lining – in shining a light on health- and diet-related life choices – that are already turning out to be good for business, and will only continue to be so in years to come.

Provenance and Production: from Field to Finished Product

From Lesvos to Crete to Attica, Greece has many renowned regions for olive cultivation. The Ladolea company is for now working with farmers who live in one of the most famous areas- Corinthia, in the northern Peloponnese.

“At the moment we are collaborating with a team of 15 farmers in the area of Corinth,” says Panos Kloutsiniotis. “Every year we add more people in our team.”

The brothers’ vision for high-quality olive oil, respect for the environment, and best practices in health sometimes made it a challenge to get farmers to change their old ways- but change they have.

“As we are collaborating with people of tradition, in the beginning it was difficult to convince them about any change,” attests Kloutsiniotis. “However year by year and by offering a better price for a better quality product, they are happy to implement these changes.”

The innovations and incentives made by the Ladolea team included, but were not simply reserved to less pesticides and better prices. There was a whole vision for the supply-chain of the olives and oil in its production stages that needed to be implemented to guarantee quality control.

“We tried to change many things so that we could produce a high quality olive oil,” adds Kloutsiniotis. Along with the use of “less intense pesticides,” measures have included “transportation in less than 24 hours to the mill in crates, not in closed plastic bags.”

Furthermore, he adds, “we changed many things in the milling process, such as the amount of water used, the time of each process and most importantly, the temperature of the whole procedure- it is being kept under 27 degrees Celsius, so that we have a cold extracted extra virgin olive oil which keeps most of the aromas and nutrition value intact.”

Looking Out for the Trees

As readers learned in the fifth part of this series, even before the COVID-19 crisis, climate issues in west Crete in 2019 caused huge losses for the olive oil industry there. Fortunately, the same ill effects have not been suffered by Ladolea’s farmers. But Panos Kloutsiniotis underscores that the company is taking a vigilant approach.

“In the region of Corinthia, such a loss has not occurred,” he confirms. “However since we are speaking of a natural product, we are always under the control of nature and we are never sure about the quality until we taste the final product.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the only way is to respect nature’s rhythm and to try to help the trees as much as we can to be ready for every year’s circumstances.”

The Pandemic’s Effect on Sales: an Interesting Change in the Spread as Tourism Diminished in 2020

Ladolea, like all Greek olive oil producers, has seen sales affected this year as both domestic markets tighten their spending and incoming tourist numbers remain well below average.

Ironically, the company’s efforts to produce a premium olive oil that satisfied taste and scientific quality levels made it more susceptible to the tourism downturn, especially as the usually packed trendy tourist areas of Athens saw significantly reduced visitors this year.

In a normal year, “our sales are around 50% exported and 50% sold on the Greek high-end retail tourism market,” the Ladolea co-founder says. However, “this year, due to the COVID situation, we are seeing 40% less in sales, mostly from the Greek tourism market.”

Interestingly, Kloutsiniotis reveals that “we did not expect such a loss” due to the sudden decline in incoming tourism, one that if predicted could have allowed the company to make “a different strategy.” However, he adds, “we are totally aware that things are so insecure and at the moment we are trying to increase our exports and not rely on the Greek tourism market.”

Indeed, the company was not mortally wounded by the crisis. “The biggest problem that occurred was the lower sales and the logistics.” The company’s team is confident that it will continue to succeed in the wake of the pandemic, because of the underlying quality of their core products.

“Our plans are to focus on overcoming the losses of this year,” he says, “and from next year, to enter the exports on the US market.”

Olive Oil and Related Aspects of Greek Culture: a Possibility for Tourism Promotion?

One of Ladolea’s clever concepts for bolstering sales is the inclusion of other items that complement olive oil itself- souvenirs which have both a functional use-value and a culture reference to Greek history.

Chief among these is the ceramic pot connected with the ancient Olympics. Working with local ceramics artisans, the company manufactures and sells a reproduction of the Aryballos– an ancient Corinthian pot dated to 700 B.C. Ancient Olympic athletes were known to slather their bodies in olive oil from pots like this before the games, while ancient Greek aristocrats kept their valuables in them. Now, Ladolea considers its Aryballos pot a perfect (and environmentally-friendly, in being reusable) receptacle for its olive oil.

The proliferation of such heritage-related items can have an indirect benefit for Greek future tourism, Panos Kloutsiniotis believes.

“Our vision is to produce Greek authentic products,” he says, “by combining the tradition and history of our country with innovative and quality production methods.”

Kloutsiniotis underscores that Ladolea’s vision is to maintain the national-product identity of their goods, and that the company derives great satisfaction from seeing its customers make the connection with Greece through their products.

“We are so happy to see our consumers happy with our products,” he says, “especially when they offer them as Greek gifts.”

During the oftentimes dismal down-year of 2020, when the traditional tourism industry has been sunk by travel restrictions and media-generated travel panic internationally, both government and private enterprise have tried unique approaches to keep any kind of connection going between outside customers/tourists and Greece.

While the government’s ‘Greece From Home’ marketing is well known, Ladolea has a less-known but also relevant innovation in mind for keeping international interest alive.

“As for capitalizing on this, we are also thinking of a new internet shop, so that we could have direct sales after advertising,” reveals Panos Kloutsiniotis.

Further, the more traditional tastings will have to continue, as conditions allow. “Gastronomy was always a big thing in our daily life,” he adds, “and it is also a big attraction for the tourists. So apart from the historical attraction of our country it is very important to make targeted gastronomical moves such as tastings and exhibitions of high quality Greek products, so that we can attract this kind of gastronomical tourism as well.” 

Hunting for Ladolea- 4 Places To Find It in Athens Right Now

Finally, and of most importance to any olive-oil devotee happening to be in Greece this year, is the question of where Ladolea products are available currently in the country.

In some cases, it may find you, the company co-founder says. “You may find Ladolea in many stores, restaurants and boutique hotels in Greece.”

More specifically, he says, the prized olive oil can be found at certain central Athens specialty foods shops. “If I mention some of them: Nora’s Deli (Kolonaki area); Fotinis’s Deli (Plaka area); Yoleni’s (Kolonaki area), and the 4 Seasons (Syntagma Square).

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Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 6: Yiorgos Stergiou, Owner, Kafeteria Lefkos Pyrgos, Samothraki

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 11, 2020

What would you do if you were the owner of an almost 70-year-old iconic island café, and had to choose whether to open for the summer season during government lockdowns, with no assurances that the tourists would ever actually come?

This was the question that Samothraki native Yiorgos Stergiou, owner of the beloved Lefkos Pyrgos café/sweets shop faced earlier this year. The following interview tells the inspirational tale of how Stergiou was rewarded for making the brave decision to reopen for business as usual in 2020, while introducing readers to one of the very best sweets shops anywhere in Greece.

A Celebrated Café

Named after the famous White Tower in Thessaloniki far to the west, Lefkos Pyrgos was opened by Stergiou’s father and brothers in 1951, shortly after the end of WWII, as “a typical Greek kafeneion” recalls Stergiou. “The café boasts an ideal location in the mountainside village of Hora, Samothraki’s capital, and offers fantastic views of the sea from its patio.

In 1995, Yiorgos Stergiou took over the family business and refined its concept from that of an average island coffee-shop to one specializing in unique, hand-crafted drinks, cakes, ice cream and other delicacies. It was a concept more befitting a touristic hotspot like Santorini than a sleepy backwater like Samothraki, isolated in Greece’s far northeast, accessible only from Alexandroupoli on daily ferries.

Nevertheless, the concept caught on, and Lefkos Pyrgos would become Samothraki’s most celebrated eatery for those exploring the lush island, one full of jungle, waterfalls, ancient sites and beaches.

I first discovered Lefkos Pyrgos in 2007, and wrote about it in the Lonely Planet Greece guide that came out the following year. The Guardian, Fox, and other international media have also covered Lefkos Pyrgos, which was most recently awarded by Trip Advisor with its Traveler’s Choice distinction for 2020. (See the over 170 reviews of Lefkos Pyrgos on TripAdvisotr’s website here).

Through his willingness to give the old café “a modern twist” after 1995, Stergiou says, “it ended up giving a modern twist to the village itself.”

Today, he adds, “we are nationally known for our famous ‘Pissa kai poupoula,’ a divine chocolate specialty topped with homemade vanilla ice cream, candied almonds and chocolate ganache.”

Lefkos Pyrgos is also known around Greece “for our homemade ice cream, our fresh lemonade, and our rum collection, just to mention a few of our highlights,” the confectioner contends.

Daily Life on Samothraki during the Crisis- the Advantage of Isolation

Like everywhere else in Greece, daily life on the island was affected during the COVID19 crisis, especially during the lockdown period in spring when only local residents were allowed to enter. However, as Stergiou recalls, the small and tight-knit nature of the island’s 2,800 residents helped it manage the crisis with relative ease. Interestingly, locals also tended to follow regulations imposed, despite being relatively isolated geographically.

“Despite the small number of inhabitants, the locals have largely respected the lockdown,” Stergiou recalls. “Living in small villages makes things easier- the local people are used to living in rather isolated, small spaces.”

At the same time, he also notes that “nature is never far away” on the largely forested island, one that is “so wild, so luxurious, so magical- like from a fairy tale.”

The Lefkos Pyrgos owner credits the prior lockdown measures as “having prevented the virus from reaching the island. Everybody was safe in the end. So, isolation has some serious advantages on this case.”

The Big Decision: Opening for the 2020 Summer Season

While the island was unaffected by the virus crisis in terms of health, the decision to open Lefkos Pyrgos for the summer 2020 season was fraught with peril, for the simple reason that no one really knew if the tourists would come back, despite the government’s strong efforts to reopen Greece after June 1. The quality and quantity of perishable goods that needed to be imported by the high-end café made it a financial risk, either way. And there were other risks, too.

“It was a very difficult decision,” recalls Stergiou. “I seriously considered the possibility of not opening at all. The strict social distancing measures, the lack of big health facilities on the island and the fear amongst people made me think that the tourists wouldn’t be willing to travel a lot this year.”

On the other hand, he notes that Samothraki “is a relatively isolated island, and the journey to get here is long.” This means that “one has to be motivated to come here, even in normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic!”

Another risk factor was that a sizeable core of the island’s traditional tourist market – the neighboring Balkan states – was cut off completely by EU-regulated border restrictions due to the pandemic. “The combination of all these factors made the decision about reopening difficult to make,” Stergiou concludes.

All in All, a Pretty Good Season on a Great Island

Nevertheless, Yiorgos Stergiou did indeed choose to reopen Lefkos Pyrgos for its 69th season, and has been pleasantly surprised by the results.

“My predictions were somehow mistaken, fortunately,” he quips, when explaining that the tourists have indeed made the effort come. The reason why Samothraki has received visitors during the pandemic when many more famous Greek islands have not is a very interesting one, too.

“People seem reassured by the fact that Samothraki is a small and rather isolated island,” Stergiou notes. “I do find that the number of tourists is less important but not catastrophically diminished.”

He adds that “there were few visitors until the 20th of July. I couldn’t anticipate a more or less normal season. After that date, things have changed. We have mostly Greeks coming, who admitted that the island wasn’t their first choice but they came anyway- they believed that Samothraki would be safer than traveling to more popular or bigger islands.”

This fortuitous side-effect of the pandemic, which we have encountered previously in this series when it comes to off-the-beaten-track destinations in general, is bound to have longer-term benefits as tourists – Greek and foreign alike – develop new affinities for local Samothraki businesses like Lefkos Pyrgos. As such, the current crisis could have an effect on future tourism trends in Greece and increase the chances of new repeat visitors to Samothraki in future.

Operating Challenges during the Crisis: Logistics and Supplies

The relatively successful 2020 summer season has not come without its challenges for Lefkos Pyrgos, however. Noting that “the situation was already difficult” even before the pandemic, Stergiou explains that logistical difficulties have hampered operations.

“There is only one shipping route connecting us with the mainland, roughly one or two crossings a day,” he explains. “Given the fact that I have chosen to work with very fine quality products, there are things arriving from all parts of Greece and some even from abroad. Organizing the logistic part of the provisioning is a nightmare.”

This has only been exacerbated by new governmental restrictions and checks caused by COVID19 measures. “The sanitary restrictions made things worse, as there are shortages of certain goods,” Stergiou adds.

All of this makes working with perishables in an import-dependent business, catering to an unpredictable number of customers very challenging.

In 2020, “the flow of visitors is not the same, the goods take twice as much time to arrive, and the transportation cost has more than doubled,” the Lefkos Pyrgos owner attests. “I’m trying to cope with that on a day to day basis.”

Expectations for the Rest of the 2020 Season and 2021

Despite these challenges, Yiorgos Stergiou is confident that Greek tourism in the long term will re-emerge. Further, unlike some, he does not believe the country needs to do anything to prove itself as a safe destination to today’s risk-averse international tourists.

“Greece doesn’t need to regain the trust of visitors; we’ve never lost it,” he says.

“We’ve only had 210 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. The thing is that all the countries tried to dissuade people from traveling abroad.”

Stergiou does admit that “the fear of a second lockdown exists… Unfortunately, the measures that we’ve heard of, include local or regional lockdowns, restrictions on opening hours or closure of bars and restaurants. That would be a total disaster.”

As far as 2021 is concerned, Stergiou is uncertain, as he believes it depends on what the greater world situation will bring. “We can only hope that in the meantime, scientists will find a vaccine and that life will return to some form of normality.”

Regardless of what the future holds, the summer of 2020 will be remembered, not just for the pandemic and its forced closure of so many seasonal tourism businesses- but for the brave decisions of those who, like Yiorgos Stergiou, took a risk by staying open and keeping tradition alive- thus making this Greek summer a little bit sweeter in the process.

Lefkos Pyrgos is located in the center of Hora, Samothraki’s inland, mountainside capital village.

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A Matter of Measurements

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While the obsession with the ‘proper pint’ may seem modern, the Ancient Greeks also fixated on measuring their alcohol. Pythagoras, a great Samian mathematician (and, presumably, drinker), created an invention that ensured party hosts and publicans could not be deceived by guests aspiring to inebriation.

His creation was dubbed the Dikiakoupa tou Pythagora (Just Cup of Pythagoras). This mysterious, multi-holed drinking vessel holds its contents perfectly, unless filled past the engraved line, at which point the glass drains completely from the bottom, punishing the glutton!

Today, faithful reproductions, made of colourful glazed ceramic, are sold in Samos gift shops, and are tangible reminders of the Apollon Mean: ‘Everything in moderation’

Text by Chris Deliso, published in Lonely Planet’s guide to Greecec 2010.

Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 5: Tassos Gourgouras, Milia Mountain Retreat, Crete

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 8, 2020

A Unique Concept for a Unique Destination

Milia Mountain Retreat has long been appreciated by Greek and foreign travelers seeking the traditional life in Crete. Built on a forested mountain ridge on the site of an abandoned settlement of medieval origins near the village of Vlatos, 50km southwest of Chania, Milia is a self-sufficient, solar-powered eco-tourism retreat that offers long walks in the olive groves, nourishing seasonal fare, and faithfully restored traditional lodgings, along with special activities.

As such a unique and hospitable community, Milia has received great interest from travel media. Over the years, I have written about Milia several times (including in Lonely Planet guides, and in this Observer article on top sites in Greece), while in 2013 Milia was also selected by National Geographic as among the world’ top 25 ecolodges. To get more insight into ‘the history behind the myth’ of Milia and its origins in the early 1980s visionary ideals of two local property-owners, see the official Milia website blog.

Despite Initial Closure, It’s All Systems Go for Milia

The strict governmental measures during the spring lockdown, were particularly challenging for anyone living on an island- and especially for anyone hoping to visit one, as the Greek government blocked access to all except island residents for months. The uncertainties concerning the pandemic affected Milia as well.

“We closed from March 15 to May 30,” Gourgouras recalls. “We re-opened on June 1st.” Since then, it’s been business as usual at the laid-back mountain getaway, a world away from the noise of the cities and media-driven hysteria surrounding the virus.

Further, even during the height of the crisis, Milia was not strained for supplies and did not suffer from any logistical problems, being a small operation on Greece’s largest island makes it largely self-sufficient. Gourgouras also notes that since the crisis peaked, official restrictions have lightened.

“Crete, and Greece, in general, have light restrictions with logistics,” he says, noting that this has been “due to the majority of the population follow the restrictions of the Greek government.” Because of this, the eco-lodge has had “no problem at all with importing necessities, as through our philosophy we support the local market.”

As such, this is another of many good examples of local tourism enterprises helping one another and the general local communities as they manage to get through the crisis. In Crete, where local bonds and families are particularly strong historically, this has been especially true.

The Guest List: Some Pleasant (and Unexpected) Surprises from the Pandemic-period Clientele

Considering its niche market, Milia is bound to attract a certain type of traveler, pandemic or no pandemic. But how much have the events of 2020 contributed to the visitor profile of tourists venturing out into the Cretan wilderness this summer?

“Now, we have visitors from France, Germany, the U.K, and from Greece,” says Gourgouras, who notes something that surprised him during these uncertain times, contrasting his expectations. “Our guests are very relaxed which surprises also us, as we were expecting to have a problem with communication and bad behavior.”

The pandemic seems to have succeeded in attracting new interest from domestic visitors as well. “At the moment we are at around 50-50 between Greeks and foreigners,” Gourgouras attests. “In previous years we were at 90% foreigners and 10% Greeks. It seems August will continue but with more foreigners 80-20 (percent expected).”

Milia Traditional Activities- All Good Too

Unlike larger and more mainstream tourism providers, Milia has not had to do much changing in terms of its guided activities and classes, because their small size and conditions meant that they already abided by the rules set out by the ‘new normal’ of restrictions. The only changes necessary were small modifications.

Thus, Tassos Gourgouras notes, “we didn’t change anything in the activities except the number of participants which is up to 9 from now on.” In any case, he says, “we rarely had more participants in our activities.”

An Interesting Decision: Keeping Rates Stable in the Crisis

 Another managerial decision which has been shared by all Greek tourism providers this year was that of prices- whether to keep them stable, make special offers to entice tourists or do something else. Unlike many tourism professionals who chose to cut prices, Milia’s leadership kept them stable.

“We believe it is totally wrong to change the rates, so we kept them as last year,” Gourgouras states. “We are much more flexible only with the cancellation policy.”

At the same time, he notes that “this year our expenses had increased due to the cleaning restrictions.”

Summer and Fall 2020 at Milia: The Outlook for the Remainder

Milia’s current success despite the pandemic owes to its geographic isolation, operating philosophy, low guest numbers, local economic cooperation and generally flexible, relaxed style. Tassos Gourgouras states that “at the moment, it seems that August will be near to 80% of occupancy, with a request to 100% as we see that we have a lot of last-minute bookings this year.”

This positive outlook contrasts that of many Greek tourism professionals who have already written off the 2020 summer season as a lost cause. Gourgouras adds that fall, however, is likely to be less busy- a good indicator for any late travelers wishing to enjoy the eco-tourism getaway during ideal temperatures and at max seclusion—a combination of conditions unlikely to recur again soon.

Milia

“September looks very low,” Gourgouras predicts. “I believe it will remain like that as older people will not travel this year, (people) who are the target group of September. October now is looking even lower than September as Germans, who travel a lot during that month, will stay in Germany for vacation.”

Milia in Winter: What To Expect for the 2020-21 Season

 Visitors seeking to get away from it all in the Cretan mountains this winter will also want to be aware of what Milia’s schedule will look like.

“We plan to close during the weekdays of winter, with an exception during Christmas, and open only on weekends,” says Gorgouras. “From January 8 to end of February we will close for maintenance and some relaxation.”

After this period, Greece will re-emerge into its independence bicentennial year and, hopefully, a virus-free return to tourism as usual. Seeing how Milia did what was considered impossible for many other tourism providers simply by staying open during the pandemic, and that its off-the-grid offerings are likely to be more popular with risk-averse future tourists, there is every reason to expect the retreat to enjoy even greater success in 2021 and years ahead.

“From the beginning of March, we will open every day,” Gourgouras says. “I do believe that ecotourism will grow after the crisis but it will be transformed and be more attractive to a smaller audience, as many people will be affected financially.”

Future Challenges and the Future of Travel

For this reason, Gourgouras believes that many future tourists will not be able “to afford any longer the higher rates of flight tickets and accommodation rates.

When it comes to assessing strategy for the 2021 season, the Milia team also has to take account of the major economic damage that Crete has suffered (even before COVID-19, climatic changes caused a multi-million euro loss in the island’s vital olive oil harvest, Gourgouras attests). Thus, for operating the ecolodge, the team is taking precautions based on what they have seen happen to other small businesses that did not plan for adversity.

“The running cost in a small tourism business has also to contain a high risk. This is one of the things I learned which so many of the small family businesses we never count that into our income,” Gourgouras adds.

To remain competitive and attractive, he believes, travel entities may have to be open to more experience-driven tourism and to make their overall offer more unique.

“We have to change the way we charge our services,” says Gourgouras, “and try to create a new and more tempting product in tourism.” Such a new kind of offer would provide “a full experience and less just fun,” he attests. “I believe tourism will never be the same again.”

In the bigger picture, he believes that “tourism will need at least five more years to recover, as many people discover more simple, easy, and joyful activities near their houses and within their own countries.”

Nevertheless, despite the economic hardship caused by the pandemic (and even before, for the island’s farmers) Tassos Gourgouras has a positive view for the future. Cretans, after all, are a hardy bunch, known for their resilience in managing tough times.

“I am optimistic,” he says, “and believe that many family businesses have the strength to survive.” With its inter-related supply chains and economic cooperation built up over years, Milia will continue to play an important role in keeping some of these Cretan family businesses going strong.

Milia Mountain Retreat is located 50km southwest of Chania.

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Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 4: Dimitris Hall, Website Editor, Spotted by Locals, Athens

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 4, 2020

How is new technology influencing tourism trends in the post-pandemic environment, and what implications might this have for Greece? To answer this, the fourth installment of our series returns to Athens and a remarkable discussion with Dimitris Hall, editor, social media and content manager at Spotted by Locals.

A private company with a simple philosophy that locals often offer the best advice on hidden gems, the company has grown since 2008 into a global network of more than 500 local volunteer writers (that is, ‘spotters’) in 81 cities. The company produces city guides and an app, and has the ambition of building communities while directing tourists towards less-visited sites.

All of these activities make Spotted By Locals a highly relevant resource for travel in the COVID era, and our discussion with the website’s Greek-Australian editor offers a number of revelations- both for tourism in Greece in the months ahead, and more generally for how technology is affecting the travel and travel publication industries.

The Pandemic’s Affect on Website Usage and the Advantages of Independence

A native Athenian, Hall went from being a local spotter for the company in 2013 to working as the website’s global editor by 2017. (Within its overall content mix, Spotted By Locals maintains two blogs about the Greek cities of Athens and Thessaloniki).

How did the onset of the pandemic affect website activitiy? According to Hall, “the biggest change that we see is the community thriving and sticking together,” which is a good sign during a difficult time for travel business. He admits that “for Spotted by Locals as a “business” it’s also a difficult time. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis traffic has totally collapsed and app sales have plummeted.”  This is a very familiar trend that many travel media and publishers have encountered during 2020, as potential tourists remain spooked by relentless mass media coverage of the alleged risks of travel.

 “Many companies in the online travel industry with lots of venture capital behind them are collapsing,” the editor notes. “More than ever, right now we’re very happy never to have been financed by outside investors and still being 100% independent.”

Of course, adds Hall, “it’s hard not to be able to grow as rapidly as we would otherwise, but it feels great making big decisions fast and start executing them immediately. Spotted by Locals has operated on a shoestring budget since 2008 and is run by owners who don’t care much about money, and who live a low-budget life. For them, this is a very long-term project.”

Spotted By Locals’ Growth Strategy- Deflecting Negative Effects of the Pandemic by Focusing on Lesser-Visited Places

In a way, the after-shocks of the pandemic – which most dramatically affected the world’s busiest tourism hubs – was not a disadvantage for the company, as its growth philosophy was never oriented towards such places. As such, the COVID-19 crisis has brought clarity and vindicated the company’s decision-making of years ago.

“Since 2018 we’ve only expanded to cities where there is no overtourism,” Hall says. “This crisis has made it clear that we should keep expanding to less touristy cities, as we think tourism to these destinations will grow faster. For example, we have just launched a city guide for Tashkent, the exciting but little-visited capital of Uzbekistan.”

Although such somewhat exotic destinations are definitely not yet on the average tourist’s radar, Hall is confident that the concept will continue to bear fruit after the crisis ebbs.

“We think the COVID-19 crisis will make people want to travel to this type of city,” the  editor says. “We have been focusing on: cities that are as amazing as the touristy cities, but way less crowded with tourists.”

During the crisis, Hall and his colleagues sensed a public sentiment that the economic ramifications of the crisis for local businesses was also affecting the mindsets of those brave enough to venture out of their homes to travel. “We believe many people realized in this crisis that it feels so much better to spend your money at the locally owned spots that are having such a hard time nowadays (and who also pay taxes, while many multinationals like Starbucks do not),” Hall affirms.

“As we are one of the few city guide networks focused on undiscovered cities, with always up-to-date tips and a ‘no international franchises allowed’ policy, we think the time is right for Spotted by Locals,” the editor concludes.

Use of Technology in Greece and Globally for Community-Building during the Crisis

Earlier in 2020, the Greek government used technology a lot during the lockdown in regulating the internal travel of citizens. Despite some domestic criticism of the measures, Dimitris Hall does not believe that technology “was used as much as in in other places in the world to check people’s movements, at least not overtly. People could go outside their houses and apartments signing handwritten notes as well as by sending an SMS with the appropriate codes.”

While the government was following the advice of the WHO and EU in some of these measures, it also relied on its own capacities and goals- one of which was to keep virus infection rates low so that the country could re-open for the 2020 summer season as soon as possible.

While this happened to some extent after June 1, many countries remained (and still remain) locked out of entry to Greece, and the many who would prefer to be there from locations around the world remained at a loss. For Hall and the Spotted By Locals team, this side effect of the crisis was another opportunity for reinforcing the unity of their critical user base- the contributing volunteer spotters. This was accomplished through use of technology, and from an early moment in the crisis.

“The global Spotter community had weekly WhatsApp meetups from March to May,” says Hall, “with impressive participation — sharing our quarantine woes was soothing and seeing the time delay of different measures in different countries was fascinating.”

For him, this was a definitive experience that demonstrated the close-knit nature of the broader team during a time of adversity and common restrictions.

“The strength of the community was shown to us in full force, outside of previous physical meetings like our big biannual Spotter Weekends. Spotters tuned in every week and helped and supported each other — for example, our LA Spotter Kristina gave free online meditation classes just for Spotters. Knowing this new situation was something truly global first-hand really helped keep my spirits up in March and April,” the editor recalls.

Current Focus of Publication Coverage for Spotters

Surviving and getting past those difficult times was accomplished, and now the activities of the company’s writers have evolved with the new unfolding realities.

Currently, Hall says, “Spotters have started focusing more on spots that are easier/safer to visit in times of Corona, for example parks, street art or fun outdoor activities, like, for one example, kayak birdwatching in the Nile.”

Of course, lingering concerns over the virus and traveler health have not failed to affect the approach writers are taking, editor Hall notes. He adds that “Spotters are also adding more info and making spots ‘Corona-proof,’ like in this article about summer concerts in Vienna.”

 Estimates for a Return to Normal in Greek Tourism: Too Early to Tell

As a travel editor and local expert in Athens, Dimitris Hall also has his own views on travel trends in Greece, and what we can expect for the future. According to him, “it’s too early to really say for sure” when Greece’s tourism sector will return closer to its normal capacity, given the uncertainty of traveler mentalities and lack of clarity around the relative risk of a second wave of global pandemic. He does note, however, that the Greek government has done its best to assure foreign travelers of the country’s safety as a destination.

“Despite the Greek government’s best efforts to convince mainly mainstream visitors and tourists that it’s safe to come, and even as they’ve kept all the relevant procedures like tests to the absolutely necessary, arrivals, income and general interest in the tourism industry across the board has predictably been a fraction of what it was last year,” Hall adds.

Despite the national downturn in arrivals, however, the local expert notes that from his on-the-ground experience, all hope is not lost. Indeed, the tourism trends he is seeing in Athens again seem to vindicate the Spotted By Locals founding philosophy and the trust connection that local businesses tend to form with their clienteles.       

“Interestingly, many of the Athens spots I have personally written about (bars, cafes, restaurants) seem to be doing pretty well and keep receiving foreign visitors,” Hall says. To him, this Athens trend indicates “that in this environment, those businesses that have formed tighter bonds with their clientele will have a better chance to survive or even thrive than cookie-cutter restaurants and other enterprises that depend on mass tourism (and which are really struggling right now).”

Some Nation-level Preditions: Economic Recession, and a Need for Diversification and a Tourism Industry Re-think

In the years ahead, Greece will continue to grapple with the after-effects of the 2020 crisis- some of which, Dimitris Hall believes, will have lasting ramifications for the general economy and the role and structure of the tourism sector within it.

“I expect Greece will go through a deep financial crisis during which tourism as an obvious, seasonal, easy source of income will start to be questioned – at least it will have to if it doesn’t want to join the ranks of the world’s ‘developing’ countries that can be grouped together by the fact that their #1 source of income is tourism,” he notes.

Of course, regardless of how the pandemic turns out globally, Greece is likely to remain popular because of its climate, history and traditional allure. But some element of the overall offer will likely change, while economic diversification is likely, attests Hall.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean Greece will stop being a hot destination, Hall continues. “It’s just that people will see, and have already seen, that there need to exist other viable sources of income, whether entrepreneurial, agricultural, industrial or service-based.”

For the Spotted By Locals editor, such a transformation would be beneficial for the country as a whole.

“This will only make Greece a more interesting destination from a Spotted by Locals perspective as differentiation spreads, and I certainly do hope official policies will change to align themselves with the vast possibilities offered by local travel instead of big business. In this predicted outcome, it wouldn’t make sense not to.”

Greek Summer 2020: To Go Or Not To Go?

As of early August 2020, the global situation was the same as it had been for much of the year. In other words, governments, local communities and world organizations still very confused and conflicted, offering different policies while media-driven paranoia about the virus, and a potential second wave continues.

In this confused informational sphere, many who would otherwise already be in Greece for holidays are having second thoughts. The Athens expert offers the most recent advice about the virus, which reveals the overall ambiguity that has accompanied it from the beginning.

“As I’m writing these lines, new coronavirus cases have started flaring up around Greece once more,” notes Hall. He says that they are “mainly due to arrivals from abroad. So, as always, things are fluid.”

Hall also spoke on the issue of potential future lockdowns in the country. “The government has promised there will be no new lockdown during summer no matter how bad things get, but what this will mean in practice is hard to say,” he notes.

“Right now we are seeing increased, sometimes irrational strictness regarding mask use and distancing in places like supermarkets, shops and mass transit,” notes Hall. Nevertheless, at the same time, “no social distancing or mask use seems to be actively upheld in cafés, bars, restaurants etc or more tourist-reliant spots. One might say the Greek government is trying to counteract more relaxed measures for tourists by tightening down on precautions for everyone else.”

Despite the media warnings and constantly-changing bureaucratic travel restrictions (chiefly, from Brussels), Dimitris Hall is sanguine on the safety of travelers in Greece after the pandemic, and recommends that (especially independent ones) make the effort to visit this year.

“I would recommend the average independent traveler to visit now, with some caveats,” he says, “First, there’s no telling how attractive Greece will be by next year as the crisis deepens, and second, visitors will have to be prepared and willing to experience the country as it is now in this unique point in history.”

In other words, he adds, “they should not expect things to be normal but should be open to uncertainty and taking in everything that happens to them, even things they would not want to expose themselves to otherwise.” Such an invitation will come as music to the ears of more seasoned, adventure-minded travelers to Greece, who remember the country before the age of the internet and all of the modern conveniences that people now tend to take for granted.

Dimitris concludes the interview with an example. “To illustrate, I was reading a report from Santorini and how it’s a ‘ghost island’ right now, dependent as it generally had been on mass tourism from Asia. But visiting Santorini now, you can see what exists beneath the normally ‘theme park’, disorienting veneer and discover truly the few surviving local places and businesses distraction-free.”

Indeed, the chance to experience places, both famous and less-visited in Greece minus the usual crowds should be a potent draw or any potential traveler trying to decide where to go with the remainder of their summer vacation.

“The curious, daring traveler will be rewarded with a unique experience,” Hall notes. “To varying degrees, this holds true for most places around Greece and is at the heart of why I think the philosophy of Spotted by Locals will not only survive but also become even more influential in the time to come.”

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Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 3: Rena Valyraki, Owner of Hotel Doma, Chania, Crete

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

July 31, 2020

In this, the third part of our series, we move on from one historic hotel that chose to open during the pandemic to another that did not- the renowned Hotel Doma, in the Halepa neighborhood of Chania, east of the Venetian old town located on a high bluff over the sea. Understanding the strategy behind this decision – on shared by many other Greek hotels during the pandemic year of 2020 – provides a better understanding of the ground realities affecting hospitality providers in Greece this summer.

Hotel Doma

About the Hotel Doma

One of the most historic hotels in Crete, the Doma has seen various incarnations, playing a role in key historic events. In the early 20th century, shortly after Crete’s liberation from the Ottomans, it served briefly as the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s consulate. Later purchased by the local Koutsoudaki family, it was leased to the British in August 1940, again being used as a consulate, before being seized by the Nazis during the invasion of Crete. After WWII, the Koutsoudaki clan recovered the building- leasing it again to the British, until they left in 1955, after which the family opened it as a hotel.

Since then, the Doma has been family-run and boasts many of the original fixture and architectural elements that accompanied its various occupants. It retains a rarified dignity, situated far from the touristy throngs of the Old Town and above a small beach, on a narrow bluff road near the former mansions of both the Greek king and former statesman Eleftherios Venizelos (the latter, now  museum). With its warm hospitality, extraordinary breakfast buffet, and evocative accoms, the Doma is one of the best choices in Greece for those looking for a placid urban seaside break.

Hotel Doma

Indeed, despite the challenges posed during the crisis of 2020, it is these characteristic attributes that make owner Rena Valyraki optimistic for the future of what has always been her family home, looking towards the 2021 season ahead.

A Pandemic Pause: Why the Difficult Decision Was Made

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 forced the hotel’s owners, like all others in Greece, to make a difficult decision: whether to open or not for the upcoming season. Although the government’s strict lockdown measures seemed to efficiently stop the spread of the virus, they also made it difficult to access Crete and the islands in general- something that would affect the Doma’s decision not to open for the season.

“We took the decision at the beginning of July not to open for the
summer season of 2020,” says Mrs. Valyraki. “It was a difficult decision to take. But after careful consideration, we came to the conclusion that it made sense financially not to open, since running expenses of the hotel are high
and reservations were few.”

Hotel Doma

Indeed, with global travelers spooked by dire warnings from governments, the WHO and world media, travel demand worldwide fell to an all-time low at just the wrong moment- the traditional opening of the Greek summer tourism season.

Greek government management of the tourism industry, combined with international flight patterns during the crisis also affected the decision to remain closed. “Seasonal hotels, like hotel Doma, were allowed to re-open on the 15th of June,” Mrs. Valyraki recounts. “But the direct flights to Crete from abroad started slowly on the 1st of July.” Since Crete relies heavily on direct and charter flights from foreign countries, this was also a problem.

And it did not fail to affect tourist demand, which declined as potential visitors found traditional means of most easily accessing the island cut off or indefinitely deferred, with a lack of certainty about possible flight cancellations adding to a risk-averse outlook. “The reservations we had received up to then were very few and did not look as if they would pick up dramatically,” Mrs. Valyraki concludes. And so the difficult decision was made to close the hotel until April 2021.

Hotel Doma

Using the Downtime Wisely: Refurbishments and Renovations Ahead of 2021 Reopening

This leaves eight more months for the hotel’s owners to prepare for the next season. Like many other Greek hoteliers who chose to remain closed during the 2020 season, the Doma’s management has still been keeping busy behind the scenes in preparing for 2021.

“During the time that we have been closed, we have taken the
opportunity to do some additions to the interior design of the hotel as
well as some repairs to the building,” adds Mrs. Valyraki. “We had to repair some exterior damages that were caused by the harsh winter weather conditions.”

Hotel Doma

Thus, while the pandemic shutdown was unanticipated, it has at least allowed the hotel’s owners the opportunity to make sure that their lovingly-tended residence remains immaculate, over a century after its construction.

Effect of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Economy and Bolstering Local Cooperation

The economic effects of the pandemic crisis have been all too clear in Greece, which has a large economic reliance on tourism. Crete is reliant on mainly tourism and agriculture for its economy, and has a strong tradition of cooperation during hard times because of its close-knit familial communities.

“Greece and especially Crete took a severe financial hit due to the COVID-19 global situation because of the high dependence of the local economy from tourism.” Mrs. Valyraki concurs.

At the same time, she also notes that in Chania, “initiatives by the local community are taking place to support the people more dramatically affected by this financial crisis, like artistic events, concerts etc. aimed to gather money and basic consumer goods.”

Hotel Doma

The Impact of the Crisis on Bookings- Cancellations, but New Interest Too

Like other Greek hotels renowned for their unique charm and hospitable spirit, the Hotel Doma sees many repeat visitors who come year after year to enjoy the timeless spirit the hotel offers. However, the 2020 virus crisis also affected this side of the business’ following, contributing to the reasons why Mrs. Valyraki did not open the hotel for the season.

“Unfortunately we had a lot of cancellations this year from repeat visitors,” Mrs. Valyraki states. “Many loyal guests chose not to travel this year due to the danger of COVID-19 and the health measures, while other reservations had to be cancelled by us.”

Nevertheless, she notes that these deferred tourists have been understanding of the situation, which is a positive sign for the future. “All of our guests that we had to cancel were very supportive and understanding of the fact that we would not open.”

Indeed, as Rena Valyraki notes, there is a positive takeaway from all of the turmoil and confusion accompanying the virus crisis, which may bode well for the hotel when it reopens in April 2021- just as Greece will be celebrating its 200th anniversary of national independence. This positive takeaway can be detected by the number of advance bookings for next year that have already started to come in.

Hotel Doma

“On the bright side, repeat visitors and travel agents are contacting us to plan for next year,” Mrs. Valyraki says. “We have already received a few reservations for 2021 and group requests, and we are very confident that the next season will be more like normal.”

Hotel Doma is located east of Chania’s Old Town on a bluff, on blvd. Elefterios Venizelos

Return to page Greek Travel after the Pandemic: Seizing Opportunities in Challenging Times

Chris Deliso

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