Athens is changing in order to become a stronger brand abroad – to adopt sustainability practices, and to attract even more visitors. Athens Development and Destination Management Agency contribute to this direction with multiple initiatives. Athens has many stories to tell and much more to offer not only to its residents but also to the visitors.
Vagelis Vlachos, CEO of the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency in an interview for the CEOWORLD magazine analyzes all the efforts that are in progress in order Athens to fulfill its mission in tourism, entrepreneurship, and social inclusion and also highlights the improvements that are planned for a better quality of life.
Q: Which is EATA’s vision for Athens and through which pillars of strategic action will it be accomplished?
Vagelis Vlachos: The Athens Development and Destination Management Agency is a public company owned by the City of Athens. Our job is to support the city’s mission in tourism, entrepreneurship, and social inclusion. For example, we serve as the city’s Destination Management and Marketing Organization.
As part of those efforts, for the last several years we have been developing This is Athens as a holistic brand to represent the city abroad, as well as to attract conference organizers to choose Athens, to showcase the changing face of Athens and our sustainability initiatives, and of course to attract visitors.
We have an online portal at thisisathens.org that aims to show the city beyond the Acropolis and to promote all season travel by showcasing the city’s neighborhoods. This year we launched the first This is Athens City Festival to invite locals and visitors to explore the city at more than 100 events. It was a huge success and it will definitely return next spring to start the visitor season earlier than ever before. This is just a small group of projects that we’re involved with, but it shows that we are working to develop partnerships and support the journey that Athens is on today.
Q: To what extent has Athens changed today compared to the past?
Vagelis Vlachos: Athens has changed a lot, little by little. Of course, the projects developed for the 2004 Olympics and the opening of the metro network had a big impact on the city.
Athens has become a much more friendly city for walkers and there has been a huge improvement in street traffic and congestion. Today the City of Athens has started to pick up the threads of those earlier projects, for example the connection between the Acropolis and the Panathenaic Stadium along Vassilisis Olgas Street. This summer the city will deliver the bottom portion of Syntagma Square, which is based on a design that actually won a competition 20 years ago. We are still talking about many of the same challenges that existed decades ago, such as the fact that some areas of the city do not have enough green park space and that parking a car is a headache.
At the same time, we have problems that are intensifying, such as heatwaves and erosion. The solutions can start by building on the past. For example, at the National Garden the walkways and irrigation channels have been improved and new lighting installed, and on Lycabettus Hill the city has started working to mitigate the threat of soil erosion while also starting restoration on the open-air theater. These are headline examples of projects that are actually taking place throughout the city – the creation of pocket parks, the repair of water fountains, planting gardens at schools and squares.
It’s a top priority to make sure that the city becomes accessible, so while widening sidewalks and creating new ramps, there are also smart sensors placed in the street to help the city police monitor for cars blocking pedestrian access.
At the end of the day, we’re starting to talk about who we want to be as a city and we’re all becoming more aware. That’s due in part to the urgency of the pandemic, but it’s also because people know that keeping the status quo doesn’t work for anyone and they are feeling optimistic that change is possible.
Q: After Covid-19, what does the redesign of Athens’s tourist identity involve? What are your expectations for the number of tourists and revenue this summer?
Vagelis Vlachos: We have heard many times over the last year from both our local and international partners that this is the moment for Athens. Thanks to This is Athens we have been able to open many channels for communication and we finally have the ability to tell our own stories about the city. This is important because we want to have conversations about both antiquity and the modern city. We can talk openly with visitors about the stress on our urban fabric and the challenges that we face, and we can ask for understanding and support from visitors as we begin construction projects or as we launch new public debates. Today our identity is all about honesty as well as authenticity, and we have seen visitors respond to this message enthusiastically. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Athens gained attention as a destination for long-term visitors like digital nomads. We expect this interest to grow because of the focus around the city on improving quality of life, and because Athens actually has many of the qualities that long-term visitors are looking for.
More generally, this year we have seen airline capacity bounce back and even exceed 2019. For example, there are more direct flights from the United States to Athens than any time in our history. This is fantastic progress, and we look forward to tracking the impact.
Q: In this period of time, with what actions do you keep alive the image of Athens abroad?
Vagelis Vlachos: One of the most important initiatives to maintain the image of Athens abroad is the Athens Film Office and the dozens of movie productions coming to Athens from major studios like Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon.
The growth of our local film industry is proof of our many great advantages, including our archaeological sites and museums that are some of the most recognizable in the world, but it’s also about our incredible local talent and expanding global networks. The AFO is creating opportunities for Athenians to compete on the international market by creating master classes on film production and supporting the development of cutting-edge skills in our local market.
We have an extremely smart and talented creative team behind This is Athens who helped to adapt our message at the beginning of the pandemic, and they figured out a way to strengthen the bond with travelers by showing them that our loving relationship will remain strong. We no longer just see visitors as sources of revenue but as people who bring resources and engage with the city – if we manage it well, tourism can improve the everyday life of residents.
Visitors are Athenians for a day or a week, as long as they are in the city, and our investments in quality of life for our residents in every neighborhood are also investments for visitors. This is our holistic approach. The City of Athens also created an umbrella to protect residents as well as visitors during the pandemic, and this had an enormous impact on perceptions of the city in terms of professionalism and safety.
We also utilized new media strategies, for example we created two This is Athens podcast series and we supported the transition of the conference and meetings industry to be able to host online and hybrid events. We invest a lot in social media and digital campaigns.
And in May 2020 we launched an initiative called Athens is Back in partnership with the Athens Traders Association in order to have a centralized online location for small businesses to offer discounts to customers and rebuild foot traffic.
Q: Athens is a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and is evaluated based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. What progress has been made in this direction?
Vagelis Vlachos: The Global Sustainable Tourism Council completed an assessment in which we received an excellent rating for the work we are already doing to make Athens more sustainable. During the next year we will proceed towards certification. It’s important to note this is not just about receiving reports and a piece of paper to hang on the wall. Together we are are showing the value of sustainability and helping local businesses to integrate those principles into their business models.
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