For many American travelers, Greece is a handful of Instagrammable port stops on a Mediterranean cruise, and the obligatory tour of the Acropolis in Athens.
But Greek tourism experts and attendees at the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) 2018 Destination Expo say that agents can grow their businesses and encourage repeat Greece sales by helping their clients explore beyond the popular picture-postcard locations, helping travelers realize the historical and cultural riches the country has to offer.
“There are so many sites undiscovered by the American traveler,” said U.S. Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, in his remarks opening the conference. “The best parts of Greece in my view are extended combinations to see the mountains, food and culture of the country. The local communities want more American tourists.”
Vaios Panagiotoulas, managing director and owner of Santorini Wine Tour and Grand Reserve Travel, specializes in wine and culinary experiences on the famous Aegean island. He said 90 percent of his business comes from Americans who find him via the Internet.
“They come to us because they are looking for unforgettable memories,” he said. A typical tour with his company includes exploring Chania and its villages on the island of Crete, half- and full-day tours in around Athens and Attica, and luxury ground transportation and guides to the Macedonia-influenced northern region of Greece.
Travel Market Report experienced this local flavor directly, exploring the island of Corfu, a destination less visited than islands like Santorini, Mykonos or even Hydra, an UNESCO site in the Saronic Gulf.
Lesser known islands hold greater opportunity
Situated in the northern Ionian Sea, within view of the southern Albanian coast, Corfu is the second largest Ionian island, with a surface area of 230 square miles and a population of slightly less than 100,000 inhabitants.
The island’s main town hosts cruise ships of all sizes and boasts architecture reflecting the destination’s French, Venetian and British rulers. The town of Corfu’s old quarter offers an incredibly broad collection of accommodations, from small hotels in historic older buildings, to the 115-room Corfu Palace Hotel, a short walk from the Spianada, a grand square and park that separates the old quarter from one of the village’s two medieval fortresses and ideally suited for people watching.
Corfu's Spianada is wonderful for dining and people watching.
The town also hosts a wide variety of activities, with winding streets and alleys filled with a wide assortment of shops and restaurants. It is a popular destination on all the major cruise line itineraries.
But the small nature of the island also allows visitors to get away quickly to idyllic, quiet coves like Paleokastritsa, small villages, cypress-lined valleys and cliff-top cafes.
The Corfu Holiday Palace hotel sits on a high promontory in the small neighborhood of Kanoni, a few minutes’ drive south from the main town. Featuring 264 rooms and about 40 bungalows, the secluded property offers spectacular views of the Ionian Sea.
“Everyone knows Santorini and Mykonos, and I love Crete. But Corfu was a surprise,” said Sophia Kulich, CTC and owner of Sophia’s Travel, Tampa, Florida, describing her post-expo fam there. “I recommend it for European ambiance, Greek lifestyle, the beautiful views. And add on Albania. The day cruise there was a cherry-on-top with the archeological Butrint site.”
Kulich is referring to the 60-minute ferry ride to Sarandë, an Albanian port town burgeoning with new hotels and long-term rental apartments popular with European travelers. From Sarandë, clients can visit the country’s National Park preserving the little-known ruins of Butrint, the site of succeeding Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman outposts.
Greece’s “Second City” is rich with culture and history
About 45 minutes north of Athens by air is the Greek port city of Thessaloniki. A modern 20th-century city, Thessaloniki was destroyed during a fire in 1917, but you can still find signs of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman history, especially in the Ano Poli section of town, and in the ruins of Roman Emperor Galerius’ 4th-century palace.
“I was pleasantly surprised with Thessaloniki,” said Ryan Roman, a tenured travel consultant at Sunset Travel & Cruise in Chicago, Illinois, who attended the expo. “That area of Greece I would sell more to the person who is immersed in and loves history. Also, there are beaches not too far away.”
A cafe high above the remote Greek village of Paleokastritsa.
Roman said history buffs who are initially attracted to Athens and the Acropolis, might also be interested in the history of the Royal tombs of Phillip II, the father of Alexander. The tomb site includes an extensive underground museum.
“Also, in the town of Viera, where Paul the Apostle came to preach, there is a monument dedicated to him. Seeing mosaics still showing some color after more than 2,000 years of being exposed to the elements was quite a sight. It is also now known as a college town, where I hear they have one of the best philosophy departments in Europe. And, the food there is amazing.”
Overall, Roman believes that any client looking to comfortably immerse themselves in local culture should consider Greece. “Not only is the food amazing, but the people are just beyond words. I love how they treat you like family and will go out of their way to make sure you are taken care of.”
Breaking away, even in the big city
While Athens is the country’s crowded capital, it also affords opportunities for clients to immerse themselves beyond the typical tourist locales.
Kulich arrived in Athens early to explore it, she said. “I enjoyed its unhurried step, the friendly people, markets, street food. I did not expect such a high quality of cheeses — it rivals Italy and France.”
“I revisited Jewish sites and explored Plaka's corners, the ancient Roman Agora, shopped, went to the market and sampled the foods. It’s very affordable food and good quality.”
Kulich highly recommended Anafiotika, a small hillside neighborhood on the Northeast slope behind the Acropolis. Replicating the Cycladic architecture of islands like Santorini and Hydra, the neighborhood is filled with small homes, stepped alleyways lined with cafes, and terraces.
Yiannis Yiannakakis, managing director of Athens Walking Tours, who started the company with his wife Despina Savvidou, a licensed guide, said he is seeing incredible growth in a brand new tour of the Acropolis that ends on the streets of Anafiotika, Monastiraki and Plaka.
“It looks like Santorini or any other island,” Kulich said.
Faye Petrova, director of sales for the family owned and operated St. George Lycabettus Lifestyle Hotel, which sits on the pine-forested slopes of Lycabettus Hill, said her hotel is filled with Americans looking for a different, more local feel in Athens.
The boutique property offers 154 rooms and 15 suites in a quiet neighborhood filled with embassies, dining options and retail stores, as well as a stunning rooftop café view of the Acropolis.