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

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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