New forms of tourism are gaining ground throughout the world. Gone are the days when a country could rely on one asset to attract its tourists. Today, destinations must offer variety, special interest niches, and new tourism products to maintain a healthy and vibrant tourism industry.
For years, Greece has relied on traditional "Sun and Sea" holidays, but today many investors and entrepreneurs clearly see the need to expand beyond the beaches and move into areas which complement a relaxing week at the seaside.
The climate, beauty, history, cultural tradition, and abundant natural resources of Greece translate into abundant opportunities in alternative tourism offerings. In fact, alternative tourism has become a priority of Greece's tourist policy, backed up by major incentives for potential investors This new and rapidly growing sector of Greece's tourism industry includes health tourism, sports tourism, ecotourism, agro-toursim, religious tourism, conference tourism, and other non-traditional products.
In Europe alone, there are more than 35,000,000 tourists who are involved in alternative tourism and this number is increasing by about 20% per year. The kind of tourist who prefers alternative tourism tends to be better educated and is more affluent than most other tourists and it is this kind of tourist that Greece is trying to attract. Of the 13,000,000 tourists, who arrived in Greece in 2002, it is estimated that only a small portion came for alternative forms of tourism, highlighting the vast potential this area represents to investors.
This new and rapidly growing sector of Greece's tourism industry includes health tourism, sports tourism, ecotourism, agro-toursim, religious tourism, conference tourism, and other non-traditional products.
Tourism accounts for approximately 10% of Greek GDP. Most tourists come to Greece on package holidays, and although the number of arrivals increased by over 30% during the 1990s, the average stay declined in length from over two weeks to about 10 days and spending by tourists increased only marginally. In order to sustain and increase its tourism revenues, Greece needs an alternative tourism infrastructure.
European tourists are interested in visiting areas where the traditional character of the environment has been retained and which has not been destroyed due to over-construction. Greece's policy during the last few years has been to support the restoration of traditional settlements and their buildings for use as hostels. Incentives for such programs are attractive.
In addition, more than 2 billion euro is being funneled into the Greek tourism industry from the EU's Third Structural Fund between 2000 and 2006. Half of this money is allocated for private participation and the Greek National Tourist Organization (GNTO) will be using part of this money to set up alternative forms of tourism.
The areas which will directly benefit from this funding are eco-tourism, spa resorts, golf courses, marine tourism, congress tourism, and gastronomy. Government official stress that alternative forms of tourism mean local development and closer co-operation with local authorities.
Officials are aware that Greece must move away from one-dimensional attitudes and needs to diversify. At the same time, of course, they stress that all alternative forms of tourism is meant to complement and expand the country's main tourism product.
The concept of sustainable development underlines the Greek strategy of alternative tourism. Over the past few years, and with financing from the 3rd Community Support Framework, many new initiatives in the alternative tourism area have been developed.
One of the main initiatives in Greece recently was the setting up of a company called Agrotouristiki, which was formed to help in the development of eco-tourism. Through Agrotouristiki, more than 200 applications had been submitted for eco-tourism projects in Greece during 2003. The purpose of Agrotouristiki is the promotion and development of the Greek countryside and the development of alternative forms of tourism through high-quality projects. Incentives for alternative tourism investments come under law 2601/98 with cash grants and subsidies up to 40%.
Although eco-tourism is in it's infancy in Greece, already companies such as F-Zein and Trekking Hellas are playing a key role by offering nature and adventure holidays as alternatives to mass market destinations. These companies see that alternative tourism means sustainable development which must not only protect the natural environment, it must also enhance it.
There is also a program in place to decentralize the nation's tourism policy so that peripheral zones can become destinations. One initiative to call attention to areas interest is the publication 'In the Steps of Paul the Apostle' which promotes religious tourism in the area surrounding Thessaloniki.
Conference tourism, catering to the academic, business, or cultural market has also become a focal point of Greece's tourist policy. Local governments and the business community fully support this policy and the government is offering lucrative cash subsidies, leasing subsidies, and tax allowances to build and expand conference facilities.
Other markets where support is available include thermal springs and spas, golf-courses, health and beauty farms, and gastronomy.
Greece, blessed with a rich natural heritage, and a great variety of eco-systems, has enormous potential as an alternative tourism destination Alternative tourism aims to preserve traditional ways of life and can contribute significantly to the sustained growth process.