Intertwining celestial culture with modernised hospitality, it’s easy to see why the Greek capital of Athens attracted five million visitors during the course of 2018.
A hub of European historical marvel, Athens features some of the world’s most amazing antiquity. Dating to between 7,000 and 5,000 BCE, it is a place that is often considered to be the birth of not only classical Greece but equally modern civilisation, home of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Distinct markings from the Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman civilisations can be found in all corners of the region, bounded by the mountains of Ymettos, Parnitha and Pendeli – landmasses that provide serene views of southeast Greece. Such influences have paid dividends from a cultural perspective, the city showcasing captivating ruins, valuable artefacts, marvellous mythology and renowned monuments.
Fast forward to the present day, Athens is a modern city, featuring luxurious hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions that rival the world’s very best. Moreover, the city is the epicentre of the Greek economy, home to approximately half of the country’s entire population. Having merged these two worlds, the Greek capital provides something for everyone, from the ancient and the new to the conservative and the creative.
THE BUSINESS END
Traditionally the Athenian economy was based on trade, leveraging its access to the sea with the development of one of the world’s most active ports. The country exchanged honey, olive oil, silver and often art such as pottery for wood, grain and other fundamental resources. Today, however, Athens has established itself as the financial capital of Greece, accounting for nearly half of the country’s entire GDP. Further, the city is considered a major economic power of Europe more generally, emphasised by the proximity of the Port of Piraeus – an area that captures substantial attention and investment.
Alongside the financial sector having somewhat recovered from the national debt-crises, tourism is another substantial contributor to supporting Athens’ livelihood, considered to be a top destination for city-breaks and excursions to either the surrounding islands or mainland.
“The city is expanding its meeting and accommodation facilities, investing in enriching what visitors can experience in terms of its culture, culinary and nightlife scenes,” explains Alexis Galenos, Managing Director of the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB).
“With 300 days of sunshine per year, having an outlet like the Athenian Riviera close by makes all the difference, while new hotel developments and modern landmarks are changing the face of the city.”
Attracting well over 30 million visitors last year alone, Greece has remained one of the world’s most visited countries, with Athens having welcomed approximately five million of these travellers.
TOURISM INSIGHTS: ATHENS DEVELOPMENT AND DESTINATION MANAGEMENT AGENCY
Launched in 2007, ACVB has been key to bolstering these growth statistics, committed to accelerating the city’s standing as a leading international meetings destination. A division of the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency that is renowned as the Greek capital’s official tourism board, the organisation’s overriding is mission is to make Athens the destination of choice for conventions, conferences, meetings and other industry events. With this in mind, Galenos provides insight on what to expect from the city in the coming months.
Q&A WITH ALEXIS GALENOS, MANAGING DIRECTOR, ACVB
Can you firstly talk me through the origins of the ACVB, how it came about, and its initial vision?
Alexis Galenos (AG): When we launched over a decade ago with limited capacity, it soon became apparent we could and should do much more. In 2009, we introduced our membership programme and started adding activities to serve the travel trade and MICE areas, servicing conference bidding, site inspections, institutional support, conferences and exhibitions, and of course organising the annual signature travel trade Athens event, amongst other things. We are now actively participating in bidding processes; having joined international networks and through the pursuit of international awards and promotion opportunities. The selection of Athens to host large-scale and prestigious conferences has been showcasing the great potential of the Greek capital as a MICE destination, consolidating the local industry’s long-term experience and expertise in such events.
Since inception, how has the organisation developed and progressed in terms of its key objectives and the messages it tries to get across?
(AG): Our vision remains to highlight Athens as a top MICE, city-break and leisure destination, by investing in actions and forging alliances that support business tourism professionals, both in the local and international market. We want to become a top European capital when it comes to hosting highly professional international conferences and corporate meetings. We are now going about it in a much more efficient way, showcasing our strengths in specific key and emerging industry sectors by growing a network of local partners that will receive support according to their business needs, reacting accordingly.
How would you say Athens has developed in recent years as a business travel hub and what are the key reasons behind its growing appeal?
(AG): Athens is indeed rising as a top MICE destination, now ranked 26th in the world according to the International Congress and Convention Association’s 2017 report. There many reasons for this. Connectivity is key, and the award-winning Athens International Airport will be home to 134 different international connections this coming summer.
Are there any specific attractions, landmarks or places to eat and drink that you would recommend?
(AG): First-time visitors should of course see the hotspots; the Parthenon, the Acropolis Museum, walk the streets of Plaka, and check out the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre. When it’s time to eat and drink, I suggest choosing a neighbourhood outside the typical tourist guide and finding a local eatery for an authentic Athenian experience. At night, head to one of the city’s award-winning cocktail bars or find a rooftop where you can enjoy a drink with a view of the Acropolis.
What trends are transforming the tourism industry in Athens at present? How are you responding to these trends?
(AG): Athens is enjoying a surge of creativity, in the culture and culinary scenes. New boutique hotels are opening across the centre and lesser known areas like Pangrati or Kypseli neighbourhoods are emerging as new hubs. This is Athens, the official City of Athens Guide, offers a free walk around the city hosted by a local volunteer. You can book this online and truly get to experience what the real Athens is all about. We are also launching a new portal with rich and up to date content that will capture new vibes and will continue to invest in campaigns to draw attention to the authentic Athenian experience.
How do you see Athens developing as a business travel hub over the next year to two years?
(AG): Athens has made an impressive comeback and is establishing itself as one of the new European destinations for business travel. The city is heavily investing to be able to better service certain sectors such as the culture, sports, IT, medical and pharmaceutical and maritime and yachting industries. Developing these areas means we will be able to host a wider range of relevant association events. Regarding corporate events and incentives, we are always looking to ameliorate the quality of the services we offer. Athens’ success is owed to its rich offerings, a unique combination of knowhow, state-of-the-art infrastructure, world class heritage and authentic contemporary experiences. We will continue to host Athens Roadshows and familiarisation trips to support networking opportunities, and we will be back again after the summer, with our seventh consecutive Travel Trade Athens event that welcomes leisure and MICE buyers from all over the world.
Are there any plans or projects in the pipeline that you wish to highlight?
(AG): The City of Athens has a number of exciting projects underway. Through the newly founded This is Athens & Partners public-private partnership, it has reached out to key stakeholders and corporations alike to develop and implement projects that will boost economic growth and job creation. These include initiatives such as reopening closed shops and urban regeneration projects, enriching the city’s event agenda.
Are you optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Athens?
(AG): Athens has great potential for growth, and we are all working towards supporting the visitor economy in a way that will lead to meaningful development for visitors and residents alike. There is a great deal of interest in the city, with important stakeholders investing both in the hospitality and capacity aspects, so, overall, we have every reason to look forward to the future.
OUT AND ABOUT IN ATHENS
From famous cultural attractions and natural beauty to modern amenities and a diverse entertainment portfolio, Athens really is a destination like no other. The city is the only capital to have 14 Blue Flag Beaches, an international award that recognises cleanliness, safety and environmental standards, spanning 50 kilometres of coastline that becomes truly idyllic in the Greek sun. Further, favourable weather conditions often allow tourists to explore in comfort, with average temperatures not exceeding 27 degrees Celsius even in the hottest month of July and rarely dropping below 15 degrees Celsius outside of the winter months. From cobbled streets to modern, sleek, award-winning hotels, it’s a destination that suits a diverse range of travelling demands with ease, providing offerings across the entire tourism spectrum.
“Athens is unique in so many ways,” Galenos reveals. “It’s a city where the ancient and modern coexist, where you can walk into a contemporary art gallery and as you’re walking in, catch a glimpse of the Acropolis.The food and drink scenes are taking off, concerts and festivals keep multiplying as each summer comes around, and the Athens Riviera with its beaches, marinas, and world-class hotels is just a short drive from the centre. There’s so much to see and do in this city, for every type of traveller.”
The largest Greek airline by passengers carried, destinations served and fleet size, Aegean Air has established an esteemed reputation through the provision of premium services in both the short- and medium-haul air travel markets. Serving 151 markets across 43 countries, the airliner is a proven player on the international scene.
Defined by its modern and technologically advanced facilities, Megaron Athens International Conference Centre is one of the finest such venues not only in Greece but the whole of Europe. Spanning 143,000 square metres, with 18 different meeting spaces to select from, the building is built on exceptional aesthetics, unrivalled client service and a stunning environment.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Having been operational for almost exactly 18 years after opening in March 2001, Athens International Airport has remained one of the world’s leading airports in the way of overall passenger satisfaction for the last 14 years. A crossroads between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the airport itself also holds the title of Europe’s fastest growing airport. Situated 33 kilometres east of the city itself, it is easily accessible via the Attiki Odos highway. Getting around the city itself, Athens’ metro network is in fact an accurate extension of the city. Constituting 61 stops, providing easy navigation for all tourists, many of the stations exhibit either artwork or archaeological treasures, something unique of the capital.
“The metro is definitely the quickest and most reliable way to get around Athens,” Galenos adds. “Taxis are also very affordable by international standards and it’s very easy to hail one on the street, or you could use one of the taxi apps like BEAT. You can also hop on the tram if you are heading towards the beach, or for something completely different head to Plateia Theatrou where you can hire a Cocomat bike and explore downtown Athens.”
A multitude of different travel options on offer, it’s easy to bypass the city’s somewhat hilly terrain when needed. Central Athens, however, remains ideal for strolling with its narrow, quaint streets and charming pedestrian promenade.