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

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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