Greece is a richly complex country, filled with unmatched natural beauty, antiquities, a warm and welcoming culture, and world-class cuisine. To truly appreciate the wonder that is Greece, I sat down with a long-time friend and awesome Greek tour guide, Aliki Karvelas, to discover, from the perspective of a true professional, what makes Greece a destination of a lifetime for tourists.
For more than 23 years, Aliki has been introducing English-speaking visitors to the people, history, and beauty of Greece. Her unmatched passion for the country makes her the perfect ambassador for this nation, which is now finally reemerging as a top European destination.
Here’s what Aliki had to say about the country she loves.
1. Friendly Planet Travel: How would you compare tourism in Greece before the 2010 and 2012 Greek protests, during the protests, and now? Do you think tourism is on the rise?
Aliki Karvelas: The Olympics returned to Greece in 2004, and the international attention spurred Greek tourism for the next few years. Then the 2010 economic crisis hit, sparking a wave of protests and demonstrations in Athens that generated a great deal of negative publicity from the international media. Yet much of the story was misrepresented. Few people realized that the demonstrations and protests only took place in specific areas in Athens, and the majority of demonstrations were very peaceful. Because of the negative publicity, Greece suffered three years of low tourism, drastically reducing visitor numbers. As a nation whose economy relies heavily on tourism, this decline bankrupted many restaurants, hotels, and stores.
Today, things are almost back to normal in Greece. We’re very optimistic about the return of our tourism sector. Last year alone, around 17.9 million people visited. For a country with a little more than 11 million residents, that’s a significant number. Visitor numbers are looking equally favorable this year, with experts predicting around 18.5 million people visiting Greece in 2014. If the tours I’ve already booked are any barometer, 2014 will be a great year for Greek tourism.
2. Why is Greece a fantastic destination for travelers?
There are a million reasons to travel to Greece. For one, Greece is the country that gave rise to Western civilization. It’s the birthplace of democracy, politics, drama, art, science, and philosophy. Greece is the country where Europe’s earliest advanced civilizations emerged. It’s a destination filled with abundant natural beauty, a perfect climate, and a rich history. Nature lovers can hike our mountains and sail our waters, history buffs can explore our museums and archeological sites, and foodies can dine on our fresh and organic cuisines. The country has something for everyone. Plus, few people are more welcoming than the Greeks. We’re sweet, friendly, helpful, and best yet, English speaking!
3. What are your favorite locations or sights in Greece? Why?
I love our beautiful islands. Mykonos, Crete, Rhodes, Corfu, and Sifnos are all breathtaking. For unparalleled views, visitors must travel to Santorini, which is constantly nominated as one of the world’s greatest islands. Also, Athens is a must. It offers a rich history and unmatched archeological sites. Additionally, I would invite travelers to explore the mainland and visit Olympia, a place that is not only beautiful but the ancient home of the Olympic Games. Explore the country’s medieval and Byzantine sites to experience where Christianity took root before spreading to the rest of Europe. My home town of Salonika is also on the list, which is full of churches, Byzantine fortresses, and antiquities from all periods of Greek history. Tourists should journey to Mt. Olympus, which according to legend is home to the gods, and hike to its peak. Finally, visit Meteora and view the famous monasteries perched on top of the gigantic stone pillars like little bird nests.
4. Is Greece a kid-friendly tourist destination? Would you recommend that families travel to the country?
Greece is an extremely kid- and family-friendly destination. A number of hotels, resorts, and cruise ships recently added child-friendly amenities. Many of the cruise ships offer performances, activities, and even babysitting options for kids. Athens also boasts a fantastic children’s museum, while the Foundation of the Hellenic World, a group that spreads Greek traditions and history, offers a number of interactive activities for families throughout the city. Plus, Greece is a great place for children to make international friends. Most Greek children begin learning English in grammar school, and are thrilled to converse with English speakers.
5. What are a few things all travelers should know before visiting Greece?
Greece is very European, making it an easy country to experience. The nation is extremely safe — travelers don’t need vaccinations before arriving and they can safely drink the tap water. I would advise most visitors to do a little research about the country before embarking on their trip. Knowing some of our history makes the sights more meaningful. Also, don’t underestimate Greece’s size. While we look like a small country on a map, it still takes a few hours to drive from one side to the other. If you’re planning on traveling through the mainland, be prepared for lasting, scenic rides through the beautiful Greek countryside.
6. Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience with Greek tourism or the country as a whole?
I love Greece, and my greatest joy in life is helping others fall in love with the country as well. I’m thrilled that tourists are finally returning and experiencing all of the amazing sights Greece has to offer. My last bit of advice is to remember to keep an open mind before traveling to Greece. While the country is extremely modern, we also have our own customs, traditions, and lifestyle. To steal from a famous Italian phrase — when in Greece, do as the Greeks. By following this rule of thumb, you’ll be sure to experience all of the wonderful adventures Greece has to offer.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak with us Aliki. I know your insights will inspire a new wave of Greek travelers.
If Aliki has inspired you to visit Greece, don’t forget to enter the Great Greece Giveaway for your chance to experience the wonders of Greece for free!