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Athens keeps the olympic spirit

A favorite of travelers since Antiquity, the sixth most visited capital in the world succeeded in using the 2004 Olympics as a trampoline. From the heights of its rethought infrastructures, the city got a makeover and is now seeking its bearings on an increasingly competitive tourism market.

The Greek capital is the great winner of the 2004 Olympics. The event enabled it to truly rise up on the map of world tourism. And intensely modify its image through a formidable marketing campaign and major public and private investments in tourism infrastructures. It literally reinvented itself. The spectacular development of local equipment (new international airport, metro lines and a tramway, highway axes favoring arrivals from nearby countries by car) made the city an extremely competitive destination. It is no longer just a stopover en route to the Cyclades Islands, but a real European capital that is vibrant and justifies an intense flow of business and leisure tourism year round. Before the Olympics, Athens was often just a through city, and many hotels even closed their doors during the off-peak season. The peak season, from May to September, remains very strong, but arrivals are already beginning to be more spread out. More than anything else, the flourishing European market of city breaks is beginning to benefit the city. This phenomenon even brought on the organization of the City Break Exhibition 2007, a major annual gathering of European short-stay professionals, in its determination to shine on this niche.Athens is decidedly entering a new era of its history in tourism. Yet, and even though its image as a city that is safe and European plays in its favor, it will have to face the intensifying competition of new destinations (Dubai, China, Croatia...). It will have to meet the new needs of a clientele looking for experiences rather than simple farniente, who demand appetizing short-stay packages... With a modernized face at the service of a cultural heritage of a rare wealth, Athens carries all the keys for exploiting its Olympic heritage to its fullest, and for the long run.Athens suffered from its reputation as a polluted city for a long time. Today its is trying to be cleaner and greener. As part of the major program called “Clean Alliance”, sanitation regulations experienced a drastic reinforcement. 14,000 trees, 67,000 bushes, and hundreds of thousands of flowers were planted in an effort to rehabilitate 1,000 hectares of wildland and create vast green spaces in the city. All the major archeological sites were grouped together in a single park that is pleasant to walk in. The benefits were not long in coming: already in 2005, all of Greece experienced an 8.5% increase in international arrivals, and 10% in 2006 (which was also a record year in terms of volumes of passengers and merchandise at Eleftherios Venizelos international airport in Athens). The capital now ranks fourth among summer destinations for the English supply market.And yet, the figures have not been so heartening in terms of average daily rate and revenue per available room. In this regard, 2005 proved to be relatively disappointing, with regard to the very high hopes invested in the short-term benefits of the Olympics. This effect contrasts the high rates implemented during the event. But 2006 and 2007 boosted confidence: the city has indeed experienced post-Olympic benefits. Optimism is on the agenda. Tourism is a very important issue for the authorities since it plays a crucial role in the nation’s economy, bringing nearly a billion euros each month. The goal of authorities is to bring the share of tourism revenue in the GNP up from 18% to 40% by 2010! And the efforts go beyond preparations for the Olympics.Improvements and major projects have continued until now thanks to specially created organizations. Last to date: a vast redevelopment of Athens’ shoreline presented last June. The goal is to create a long coastal itinerary (42 km). “By opening Athens up to the sea, creating a unified path for hiking and bicycling this work will introduce life with a symbolic and effective importance and open up a new face and possibilities to the region,” explained the Minister of Tourism, Fani Palli-Petralia. It is all part of a greater effort to promote Attica as a first class beach resort destination. Also in the line of fire: the profitable cruise market. The port of Athens is the first on the Mediterranean to have a centralized water treatment system, with a running water supply and waste recycling. This is an important argument for convincing cruise operators to drop anchor.And the leisure segment is not the only point where the Greek capital has polished its brass. As a port of entry to the Old Continent for countries on the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Near East and Asia, it is a strategic location for companies that want to develop in South Eastern Europe. The works begun in the wake of the Olympics have also made it possible to put one of the city’s major handicaps into perspective (while not fully resolving it): its insufficient capacity as a congress and meeting venue. The optimization of the “Peace and Friendship Stadium” for the Olympics saw the imposing sports complex increase its capacity. It can now accommodate 7,000 congress goers, has a main amphitheater that seats 1,000, equipment for simultaneous translation in eight languages, a variety of restaurants and the proximity of 170 hotels in all categories. But now voices are calling out for another major congress center...Aside from these aspects that still need strengthening, the gods are with the city: according to the Hoteliers Union in Athens-Attica, occupancy rates at the region’s hotels are booming with properties posting rates of 66.8% in May 2007 (+5% over 2006). With exception to neighboring Istanbul, no other major European destination can boast the same kind of growth on that period. Simultaneously, Athens’ two airports reported an 11% increase in arrivals for the first semester... MKG Consulting’s database also observes a very encouraging evolution of the key indicators on the hotel sector: +17.5% for the average daily rate on 12 cumulated months and +17.1% for the RevPAR. This growth should logically accompany growth in the supply of nights... however, this phenomenon has encountered certain impediments. While the Olympics offered a pretext for profoundly modernizing the city as well as a source of new arrivals, they did not, as is often the case, lead to any noteworthy explosion of the hotel supply. Wanting to avoid a scenario like the one in Sydney, the city preferred to make private apartments available (36,000 beds in Athens and its region!), and use cruise liners like the Queen Mary II, as floating hotels during the event. In terms of work, efforts concentrated more on renovating properties that were already operational such as the Athenaeum Inter- Continental, the Hilton, the Hotel Grand Bretagne or the Chandris Hotel Athens (the jewel of the Greek brand bearing the same name and renamed “Metropolitan” for the occasion). Luxury and upmarket properties were entirely renovated for the Games. With 66 hotels and 4 and 5*, the city is well supplied.Another check on growth in the number of beds is purely geographical. Wedged between the sea and the mountain, the city is limited in size, and the supply has no choice but to grow within this limited space. That said, growth was minimal in the capital itself, 6,000 beds nonetheless joined the inventory throughout the region in light of the Olympics. Both national and international chains have a wide growth margin in the territory: the vast majority of Greek hotels are independent, and Athens’ hotels are no exception. Even Grecotel, the largest domestic brand in the country, controls less than 2% of the total inventory. Large groups such as InterContinental Hotels, Starwood, Hilton, Accor, Mariott, Hyatt have a visible presence, of course, but with only a limited number of units, and sometimes only a single hotel. In the ranks of foreign brands, Best Western – a voluntary chain – and Iberostar have the strongest presence in Greece.Another longstanding obstacle to local hotel development would appear to be in the process of being resolved: a decree published last July is finally opening the way to an international ranking of hotels with stars. An ongoing subject, professionals have been waiting for this standardization with respect to the rest of the world for decades. A call to tender was launched to choose the organizations that will carry out the new standardized, modern and objective ranking. Until now, The Greek National Tourist Organization (EOT) ranked properties according to a double system, with one ranging from “E” to “A” and “Luxury”, and the other using stars, but according to a scale specific to the country. The shift from one system to the other was made in a somewhat arbitrary manner and the cohabitation of the two scales is not very clear... Clients, tour operators and hoteliers alike have difficulty understanding it... particularly since only 40% of the national supply was affected by this categorization. Now urgent, the new classification will bear on all hotels and will strongly consider the quality of services provided. This should improve the global offer.Athens is decidedly entering a new era of its history in tourism. Yet, and even though its image as a city that is safe and European plays in its favor, it will have to face the intensifying competition of new destinations (Dubai, China, Croatia...). It will have to meet the new needs of a clientele looking for experiences rather than simple farniente, who demand appetizing short-stay packages... With a modernized face at the service of a cultural heritage of a rare wealth, Athens carries all the keys for exploiting its Olympic heritage to its fullest, and for the long run.

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