Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ conference call with TUI Group CEO Fritz Joussen

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis had a conference call today with the CEO of TUI Group, Fritz Joussen. During the meeting, the establishment of the group’s Co-Lab in Rhodes was announced, which will be the first laboratory that will foster solutions for the green and digital transformation of the entire value chain of tourism-related services collaboration with the local authorities.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis: It’s a pleasure to see you virtually, and we do hope that within the next month, COVID -at least Omicron- will be history. So we’re looking forward to a very good tourism season from the beginning of the season this year. Because you remember very well that last year we struggled during the first months. But I’m really happy about this meeting and I’m thrilled about the initiative that we will have the opportunity to announce in a bit.

You know how much we value our relationship as a country with TUI. I was looking at the numbers. Almost a million and a half visitors you brought to Greece, out of which I understand 600,000 came to Rhodes and we worked very hard to save our tourism season last year, and I think we did a very good job. As you know, we were at the forefront of launching the EU Digital Certificate initiative, which ended up being a huge success.

But we want to look into the future and of course we have consistently made the case that our new tourism model has to be sustainable. And I know that this is a big focus also for you. So I am particularly interested to find out more about this initiative, the CoLab project that we will be launching today. I’m very happy that you’re partnering with the prefecture of Southern Aegean, Mr. Chatzimarkos and our mayor of Rhodes, Mr Kampourakis. I can tell you that they have been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to our tourism product, and I think they also understand the challenges and opportunities looking into the future.

As you know, we have the capacity to mobilize significant public European, but also private funds to turn our product towards a much more sustainable direction. We’ve already taken initiatives in some smaller islands through the “Gr – eco” initiative. I think especially on the smaller islands, we really have an opportunity to move very aggressively towards a carbon neutral environment, and I am absolutely convinced that this initiative is in line with, also, what your customers, the people who choose Greece as a tourism destination, will seek.

So I think this is a challenging but also fascinating forward-looking proposal. It will have the full support of the government at the highest level and I’m very keen to find out more as to how we will implement it.

I’ve studied the presentation, so I’m aware of the specifics of what you intend to put in place. Let me just quickly react to your very insightful comments. First of all, it is important to point out that in the United Nations sustainability goals, we do not just talk about environmental ecological sustainability, but also about social and economic sustainability. In our case, tourism is the single most important job creator. When we look at the sectors where Greece can be competitive. And this is certainly the case in the islands, particularly the case in Rhodes. And we do intend to continue investing in tourism and make sure that it will create good jobs for the local community for as long as possible during the year. I do want to stress that it is one of our key priorities in our long-term tourism strategy to extend the season. And we do think that many of our destinations, including Rhodes, have the capacity to also attract visitors outside the summer months. Greece should not just be a destination you come and visit in the summer, to enjoy the lovely beaches.

This, of course, is always going to be a very important aspect of our strategy. But we do want to decrease the dependence of the third quarter in terms of our overall tourism revenues. So in that case, your assistance in terms of providing accessibility to our tourism destinations in cooperation with the local communities, which need to work to expand the offerings on the ground is particularly important. And an island such as Rhodes, which is a big island, has the capacity to attract visitors outside the summer months. There are many other very interesting things to do. Even in the winter. There’s always this logic. If you build it, they will come. Who makes the first move? Is it the flights? Is it the hotels that will stay open? The answer is we need to work in cooperation with the local authorities and make sure that we offer a product that is attractive for people, who would like to travel to Greece outside the summer months. This is particularly important and, of course, this is not just relevant for Rhodes.

There are many other destinations in Greece that can offer year-round accessibility. Be it city breaks, or even Greece as a winter destination. Yesterday, the New York Times, there was a full page of the best destination in the world for spring skiing, and it was Crete. I’m sorry… You don’t have mountains in Rhodes. I do come from Crete. It was stunning. I know because I do mountaineering skiing and I always said “How come this is still an undiscovered jewel”? But to be able to tell your visitors, for example, that you can visit Crete in March and at the same time, be on the mountain and the sea the same day, it really diversifies your product. And if you add to to that component culture, sustainable eco tourism and the ability to offer numerous different experiences in various destinations, I think we have the package to really be able to “sell” the country as a year-round destination and of course, to also include the component of the cities and the city breaks, not just Athens and Thessaloniki. I think we can position ourselves and work with you to expand the scope of the product offering regarding Greece.

My second observation is that what we’re trying to do in Rhodes is challenging because we’re talking about a big Island. It’s easier to do it on a small island. When we talk about a big island with existing infrastructure, it becomes more and more challenging, but also more interesting. I want to express my full confidence in the regional and the local authorities. I’ve worked with Giorgos and with Antonis. You have the best possible partners in terms of making this work. And of course, as you know, the regions will have significantly more funds available in the next programming period. We also helped in that direction, but there is always a breakdown between important public investments that need to take place and of course, in the private initiatives from the private sectors, but also the involvement of the local community.

So we have significant funds available to support this. And of course, also through the RRF. The green transition is important and we intend to create a separate Fund for all the islands of the Aegean for the local communities and the municipalities to be able to participate in projects that will all have a particular focus on sustainability. But in Rhodes we feel comfortable that we have regional and local authority of the highest quality, but also a combination of very innovative private entrepreneurs, who have really been successful in positioning the product of Rhodes ahead of its other Greek competitors. I frequently tell my friends in Crete “Look at what Rhodes is doing”, and we welcome this internal competition between the regions because we all need to learn from each other. And my third observation is that, yes, coming back to your initial point, I do think that Greece will be one of the winners of the pandemic. As you said, the pandemic was a tragedy, but it was also an opportunity.

And I think we have demonstrated that if you have capable central policymaking with quick and clear decision making that addresses the challenges of the day and does not send confusing messages to the market and especially the big players, you can benefit from what is essentially a crisis. And we do want you to increase your overall exposure to Greece, and I don’t think that it will be difficult for you to sell Greece to your customers, because there’s a broader narrative that goes beyond tourism. I think Greece is a country that is clearly turning a page. It’s leaving behind a decade of crises, of pain. And I think it’s a country that is really looking to embrace the challenges of the future. So we always like to work with the global leaders in all sectors that have an interest in investing in Greece or bringing business to Greece. And I want you to be certain that we can have that level of communication, not just at the level of the Ministry, but also the level of my office. And we will work very hard to make this project a success.