Greece's Tourism Industry

Despite its relatively small territory, Greece is one of the most visited countries in Europe. The popularity of Greece as a tourist destination is mostly due to the combination of factors like pleasant weather, great-value tourist infrastructure, and the country's history and natural beauty. In this article we take a look at the tourist industry in Greece and at some of the most famous destinations in the country.

Tourism in Greece : key facts and figures

The Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO) is the governmental body that oversees all aspects related to the tourist industry in Greece. This organisation was founded in 1927, so the history of Greece as a key tourist destination does indeed go back a long way. The GNTO is headquartered in Athens, although it runs offices in 21 countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, China, France, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

According to the latest figures released by the Greek National Tourism Organisation, it is expected that during 2013 more than 17.5 million tourists will visit Greece. This is a record number and a clear sign of the recovery recently experienced by the sector, as in 2012 the number of tourists visiting the country dropped by 5.5 per cent following the constant strikes that took place throughout the country. The strikes affected public transport, the operation of the main airports in Greece, and made it difficult for visitors to access certain landmarks in central Athens, as they were occupied by anti-austerity demonstrators and the riot police. As a result, hotel occupancy fell substantially, and there was a10 per cent drop in the passenger traffic figures. However, the future of the tourist industry in Greece looks brighter now, and it is expected that within the next couple of years the country will be able to pick up where it left off after the 2004 Olympic Games.

Tourism plays a key role in the Greek economy. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the tourist industry contributes 16 per cent of the country's total GDP. Only five months ago, the Greek Culture and Tourism Ministry affirmed that the country has the potential to attract up to €11 billion per year in tourist revenues, as in just one month the industry generated more than €125 million.

Most tourists arrive in Greece through the airports in Athens, Heraklio (Crete), Thessaloniki, Rhodes, and Corfu, which are the top-5 busiest airports in the country. The island airports at Kos, Santorini, Mykonos, and Zakynthos are also popular points of entry to the country. The vast majority of visitors come from countries located in the European Union, but there are also high numbers of tourists who come from North America, Australia, Israel, and China.

An overview of the major tourist destinations in Greece

Greece's capital city, Athens, receives more than half the total number of tourists. The city's millenary history and the excellent degree of conservation of its historical buildings attract visitors to landmarks like the Parthenon, the Acropolis, the old neighbourhood of Plaka, and the neo-classical buildings and plazas that adorn the city centre.

The harbour of Piraeus, located 7 miles away from Athens, is the gateway to Greece's islands, as dozens of ferries depart from the area every day. The Greek islands can be divided into five groups, according to their location. The Saronic islands are the closest to Athens, so islands like Poros and Aegina are popular destinations for day-trippers who stay in Athens. The Ionian islands, located in the stretch of sea between Italy and Greece, include popular destinations like Zakynthos and Corfu. The Cyclades are some of the most visited islands in the country, like Santorini, Mykonos, and Paros. The fourth group consists of the Dodecanese islands, which include classic destinations like Rhodes, Kos, and Samos. Then there is Crete, which is home to popular resort towns like Heraklio, Chania, and Agios Nicholaos. There is yet another group of islands called the Sporades, located to the north east of Athens. These are very popular among Greek tourists, with the main destinations being Skiathos and Skopelos.

Although Greece is mostly known for the islands and their beaches, mainland Greece is not short of tourist attractions. Outside Athens, visitors typically head to Thessaloniki, the country's second largest city, which enjoys a fine location overlooking the sea. Thessaloniki is in northern Greece, where visitors can find another stellar attraction: the Halkidiki Peninsula. The peninsula is home to Byzantine monasteries and castles, remote beaches, and spectacular mountain landscapes. Package holidays and stays in villas are becoming increasingly popular in the area.

During the winter, Greece becomes an affordable destination for ski enthusiasts. The resorts at Parnassos, Falakro, Mount Voras, and Kalavrita are the most visited. Last but not least, the Peloponese attracts large numbers of tourists with its famous archaeological sites (like Olympia, Mycenas, and Epidaurus), its quiet fishing villages, and the numerous opportunities to take part in eco-tourism and active holidays.