By Barçýn Yinanç, Hurriyet Daily News
Increasing cooperation with Turkey in the tourism sector will be a priority for Greece, Greece’s new tourism minister told the Hürriyet Daily News, promising that the strongest efforts would be made to facilitate Turkish travel to Greece.
These efforts will not be limited to increasing reciprocal visits, but will include all projects, from joint investment to joint campaigns to attract tourists from third countries, according to Olga Kefalogianni, who has assumed responsibility for a sector that, although one of the main pillars of the Greek economy, has been in dire straits. Turkey is not seen as a competitor but as a partner, she said.
In a clear sign to demonstrate the priority she gives to cooperation with Turkey, Greece’s 37-year-old tourism minister gave her first-ever interview to the Daily News, after she was sworn in at Parliament last Thursday, but before a confidence vote of the country’s newly formed coalition government.
“This is our main priority. … Our efforts will be to facilitate the acquisition of visas with less bureaucracy and as fast as possible,” Kefalogianni said. The lifting of visa requirements for green passport holders led to an increase of 180 percent in the number of Turks visiting Greece in 2010. A new visa regulation facilitating visits to five islands near the Turkish coast that started nearly two weeks ago is in a trial period, according to Kefalogianni. “Right now we are in a trial period. We want to see how it will work in order to implement it even more thoroughly if we have good results, which we hope we will have.”
While admitting that being a part of the European Union’s Schengen visa system is acting as an impediment keeping more visitors from coming to Greece, Kefalogianni said Greece will have to find ways to facilitate these visits within the procedures of Schengen. But her plans for cooperation are not limited to increasing visits.
“For us it’s also very important to work on joint projects. When we are talking about overseas markets, like China for example, people who would come from the other side of the world to visit our countries, it is self-evident that if we could provide a joint package this would mean joint benefits. This is definitely something we are aiming to work [on] and this will help the economies of both countries,” she said. Turkey and Greece nearly came to the brink of the war 20 years ago over sovereignty of tiny islands in the Aegean. Currently, the two enjoy very friendly relations, and especially the residents of the islands very close to the Turkish coast have contact with Turkey on a daily basis, she said.
“This is the best thing; there is not only a very good understanding at the top level, there is also a very good understanding of friendship on the level of people. This gives us the strength and willingness to go further ahead,” she said.
Tourism is actually a very good bridge between the two peoples, Kefalogianni said adding: “Of course there will always be political issues. We could always only see the dividing lines, but it’s much better to put effort into what can actually get us together. I think tourism is the area where we can maximize [those efforts].”
In this respect she gave the example of a new marina on Lesbos, right across from the Turkish town of Ayvalýk, which is operated jointly by a Turkish conglomerate and a Greek company working together. “This is also an example of how entrepreneurship in tourism can actually bring two countries together.” One of Kefalogianni’s previously stated priorities is to improve the image of Greece, which has been tarnished by riots in protest of austerity measures. When asked whether this was problem to be tackled with Turkey, since Greece does not suffer much of an image problem among Turks, she gave credit to the Turkish media, saying it did not exaggerate Greek problems.
She said she was looking forward to going to Ankara, where she has never been before. As is the case with many Greeks, she has been to Istanbul many times. “We see a country that is really developing. It’s a country making its best efforts to be a modern country,” she said. “Istanbul for me is actually a great example; tourism can really help economic activity. I was first in Istanbul many years ago; I was struck how quickly it evolved and how it tackled big issues as regards issues of conventions and the cruise industry. It is also a hub also for air flights with Turkish Airlines.”