Tourism offers the opportunity for longtime political rivals to explore each other's countries.
By HK Tzanis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 19/09/11
Symi island, Dodecanese island chain, eastern Aegean. [HK Tzanis]
It's a sight that a few generations ago would have turned heads on Greek islands, yet fast forward to 2011 and the spectacle of little red Turkish flags on luxury yachts anchored in the harbour of picturesque Symi isle is as ubiquitous as the ouzo and grilled octopus served at local seaside tavernas.
A burgeoning middle class in neighbouring Turkey and the proximity of Greece's numerous eastern Aegean islands have created a lucrative market for Greek tourism operators, with Thessaloniki and Athens also figuring into the picture.
With 561,198 official entries of Turkish nationals to Greece in 2010, the foremost obstacle in multiplying that number remains the Schengen visa for Turkish passport holders, something acknowledged by Greek officials and bemoaned by tourism entrepreneurs.
"The visa is the number one problem, Schengen makes multiple entries difficult; the solution is to accelerate visa procedures for the Schengen visa at Greek consulates," according to Stavros Daliakas, a top aide to Greek tourism Deputy Minister Giorgos Nikitiadis.
Daliakas said that although the ministry is satisfied with Greek consulates' speed in issuing tourism visas in Turkey, "we're nevertheless always trying speed this [process] up, with the assistance of the foreign ministry."
Nikitiadis headed to the well-known southern Turkish resort of Antalya on Thursday (September 15th) as head of a delegation of tourism professionals and sector representatives of three of the main islands (Rhodes, Kos and tiny Symi), vying for increased tourism arrivals from Turkey and third country nationals, especially Russians, vacationing in Turkish resorts.
According to Aris Soulounias, a hotel owner on Rhodes and spokesman of the Rhodes Hoteliers' Association, one tangible action promoted by the Greek side is the establishment of two visa centres, one located between Antalya and Fethiye, and the other in Bodrum.
"Besides Turks, there are numerous Russian vacationers in the Antalya region, more than two million every year, and many want to visit Rhodes and other isles in so-called combined [destination] tourism packages," Soulounias said.
"Turkey has an increasing middle class that now numbers into the millions, is well-off and has a tremendous dynamism," Soulounias added.
Back in Symi, where sun-drenched turn-of-the century neoclassic buildings amphitheatrically overlook the tiny harbor, one local tourism professional touched on what's "common knowledge" regarding the bevy of Turkish-flagged mega-yachts and pleasure craft often anchored in the local marina.
"Officials look the other way when dealing with the passengers of these vessels, because essentially they arrive on the island without a visa. No one here is going to be strict in enforcing Schengen requirements for the owner of a 40-metre yacht and his entourage, or even pleasure craft," the man explained.
"Transit [via a vessel] does not require a visa, but if someone steps off, then by the letter of the law a visa is required, but Greek officials on these isles look the other way," he adds.
In Athens, Daliakas clarified that most of the Turks now entering Greece are regarded tourists, as opposed to previous years when many of the Turkish citizens were immigrants returning to Western Europe by car.
"We believe that Turkish tourists are definitely interested in the islands, yet there is also increased interest in Thessaloniki due to the fact that the city is the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk and also hosts several notable Ottoman monuments, while Athens, apart from its very well-known monuments, is a shopping destination … Cruises beginning from Istanbul and elsewhere also appear appealing for the Turkish market," Daliakas said.