The GNTO’s Eleni Skarveli tells Samantha Mayling how the destination wants to promote its sustainability agenda in 2024
Devastating wildfires on the island of Rhodes last July forced thousands to flee their homes, while tour operators and airlines set up crisis teams to repatriate hundreds of holidaymakers.
Despite the destruction wrought by the flames, the destination bounced back, thanks to swift action by the Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO), working in partnership with the public and private sectors.
And it’s that determination to work with partners that characterises the approach of the GNTO’s UK director, who is optimistic about 2024, especially with her sustainability agenda.
“The resilience that we saw from the [UK] market, the bounce-back and the support were amazing,” says Eleni Skarveli, noting how British holidaymakers were the biggest inbound market for Greece last year.
“Of course, [the wildfires] drove down bookings for Greece in total [but] by the end of August, our bookings increased.
“People were willing to go back and support us, as a gift to the Greek people, and also knowing how important tourism is for us.
“We had a challenging year, with a lot of ups and downs…but things turned out well for us at the end of 2023. It was a very good year for us.”
Skarveli hails how the “synergy between the private and the public sectors worked really well and very quickly” to help Rhodes recover.
She visited the island as soon as possible to witness how it was coping – and arranged for agents, influencers and journalists to see the restoration work and how holidays could resume.
“Within a week after the fires, they were planting trees and painting walls,” she recalls.
Operators supported the destination by extending the season, with flights visiting until November 15 – and extensions to the traditional season are in place for 2024.
People were willing to support us, as a gift to the Greek people, knowing how important tourism is for us
“That shows the interest: people want to visit Greece and not only during July and August,” says Skarveli.
“We don’t want people there just for the summer but to enjoy Greece in the shoulder months of spring and autumn which are beautiful seasons to visit and much cheaper.
“Even in January, it’s 18C. In November, people are still swimming because, after the summer, the waters remain warm.
“It’s also a trend that we need to follow, as it aligns with our sustainability strategy.”
That spirit of cooperation is a key element of her sustainability drive.
“We want to spread the word,” says Skarveli, who took on her role in London in September 2021. “It’s not enough just to follow a strategy – it’s also important to inform the market.
“We needed to create a platform and we did within a year. We created the platform sustainablegreece.co.uk, which has two roles.
“One is to inspire and let people know about it. On the other hand, it aims to motivate and engage our partners to include sustainable projects in their packages.
“It also became a hub for Greek stakeholders, as they want to be in this club. It has been nice to see the positive reaction of all our partners.”
In October 2023, the GNTO held its first Sustainable Travel ‘Agora’ in Crete, bringing together key industry figures to discuss the climate crisis and how the trade can tackle the challenges and promote its eco credentials.
“We keep learning every day,” says Skarveli. “This is the main thing, awareness. It is very important because good practice might come from, say, Spain, Switzerland or Puerto Rico.
“We cannot do it without the cooperation of tour operators, destinations, writers, PRs – everyone in the tourism industry. We have to work together.”
Green issues are not always the first questions that holidaymakers ask a travel agent when researching a holiday, she agrees.
“But, when you’re looking between different destinations, and you see that there is a destination doing something positive to preserve the beauty, you want to go. It will click with everyone.”
Skarveli also highlights how the term ‘sustainability’ covers a wide range of activities that consumers do not necessarily consider as ‘sustainable’ – such as hotels sourcing local produce.
Of course, you can find salmon in a Greek breakfast, but isn’t it better to have Greek honey and Greek feta?
Hoteliers will say guests request salmon for breakfast, for example, but the trade needs to educate travellers better about responsible tourism, she suggests.
“Of course, you can find salmon in a Greek breakfast, but is it something that you need?” she asks. “Isn’t it better to have delicious Greek honey and Greek feta instead?”
Another element of the strategy is working with smaller, family‑run hotels to help them with sustainability projects and official accreditation.
Larger groups such as Ikos and Sani have the budget to develop such policies, she notes, and some all-inclusives now have the option for guests to dine in local tavernas to support the community, for example.
Agents as ambassadors
The tourist board is seeing more demand for smaller islands and off-the-beaten-track destinations, alongside the continuing popularity of Rhodes, Corfu, Kefalonia, Zante and Crete.
Skarveli points to islands such as Paros, Antiparos and Folegandros – and the growing popularity of twin‑centres, the Athenian riviera and fly-drive holidays starting from the likes of Thessaloniki and Kalamata.
“We just need to spread the word and let the agents know about all the offers and the options for travellers,” she says.
“It is very important after Covid to restart in-person communications.
“Everything is coming back to the agent – our salesperson, our ambassador. They’re the ones that need to know and sell, so we really feel that this is important.”
Skarveli says one highlight last year was the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers (Atas) Conference in Liverpool, where the GNTO sponsored the destination showcase on the opening evening.
“It was amazing seeing that interest in new destinations from travel agents,” she recalls.
“For us, it is more important to focus more on niche areas like adventure tourism because it will definitely show people that you have a lot of possibilities and other beautiful things to do outside the summer season.”
Luxury and value
Agents are also important to communicate the GNTO’s messages of quality and value for money, she adds.
“You might find somewhere cheaper but is it going to be the same experience?” she asks.
“People are looking for quality, so it is about agents communicating that quality and the value for money.”
As well as value for money, it’s important to keep Greece “front of mind” for luxury consumers, she says.
“We might think luxury is only on Santorini and Mykonos, for example, but a very small island can be unique, with beautiful restaurants and boutique hotels, like Folegandros, which can be as nice as a big luxury destination.”
Although it’s still early days, the signs are looking positive for another successful year in 2024, she says.
“The year started very dynamically and we are very happy with that,” she tells Travel Weekly.
“The capacity is there, for the big tour operators and small operators; everyone is happy.”
And she is eager to say “a big thank you” to members of the trade for their continuing support.
“We really understand how important is to have that support from the trade. We saw that with the wildfires in Rhodes. We hope that we won’t have to repeat something like that… but we know the reality is harsh.
“We’re really hoping that 2024 will be a great year.”