The Athens Riviera, just 20 minutes from the Acropolis and the Greek capital’s bustling city center, should have been a playground for the world’s wealthy. It’s not.
The 70-kilometer (44-mile) coastline, with its clear-blue waters, romantic sunsets and sweeping views of the Saronic Gulf, has only a handful of luxury hotels and even those have trouble finding the trained staff needed to cater to the whims of high-end visitors. Not surprisingly, tourists with deep pockets skirt the site, making it a missed opportunity for a country that draws as much as 20% of its gross domestic product from the hospitality industry.
“There’s a lack in Greece of educational programs to train people to work as butlers in luxury villas, to provide thalassotherapy services or to work aboard yachts, all in demand from wealthy tourists,” said Xara Kovoussi, the director of the state’s Tourism Education School in Anavissos, south of Athens.
It doesn’t help that Greeks look down on such jobs even though travel and tourism directly and indirectly provide livelihoods to about 3.8 million people, or more than a third of the Mediterranean country’s population. Even with a jobless rate of 18%—the highest in the euro area—finding skilled hospitality employees remains a challenge.
“Greek society still regards the tourism profession as Category B for employment,” said Kovoussi, adding that there are only about 450 students at her school. The institute, known by its Greek initials as Stean and shaped like a cruise ship that can be turned into a hotel for training, prepares students for all kinds of jobs, including as chefs, housekeepers, bar tenders, receptionists and waiters.
Staffing constraints and a lack of adequate investment are preventing the tourism sector from fully harnessing the natural advantages of sun and sand in a country with about 6,000 islands scattered across the Aegean and Ionian seas. Addressing those issues will be critical as Greece tries to claw out of a decade-long financial crisis that shrank its economy by a quarter and at the lowest point saw 27% of its working-age population without jobs. With the summer tourist season underway, the country is falling short.
Greece ranks 18th among countries with the biggest gains in spending by international visitors in the past seven years, trailing behind Spain in fifth place, Turkey in ninth, Portugal 11th and Italy 12th, according to World Travel & Tourism Council data. Greece received 30 million visitors last year, an 11% jump from the previous year, while tourism revenue rose 12% to 16 billion euros ($18.1 billion), according to the Greek Tourism Confederation. Greece’s investment in the industry has grown slower than its global rivals, rising 3.6% in 2018, which placed it 120th in a ranking of 185 countries, WTTC data shows.
Greece’s tourism industry will need about 5 billion euros to 6 billion euros in investments in the next four to five years, according to Stelios Koutsivitis, chief executive officer of Astir Palace Vouliagmeni SA, which operates the Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel in Athens. Big projects could bring significant inflows of foreign investment, he said, adding that boosting the number of high-end tourists—currently at just 2% of visitors—to 5% could double the country’s revenue from the sector.
Astir Palace Vouliagmeni has a 50-year history catering to luxury visitors to Greece, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Frank Sinatra and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. In 2016, it was acquired by Jermyn Street Real Estate Fund IV LP, owned by the state investment arms of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, Turkey’s Dogus Group and others.
“Quality, not quantity, is what matters,” said Miltos Kambourides, founder and CEO of Dolphin Capital Partners, a developer of luxury resorts mainly in the Mediterranean. Greece should lure international luxury brands “as the direct and indirect promotion they do for a country is second to none,” he said.
Dolphin has completed two luxury resorts in Greece, the Amanzoe and Nikki Beach Resort & Spa in the Peloponnese, and this year is building two more, the One&Only Kea Island and the Kilada Hills Golf Resort with an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus signature course—all for a total investment of about 750 million euros.
Upmarket brands “have a very loyal following with the wealthiest tourists of all: the Americans,” said Dimitri J. Chandris, who sits on the advisory board of Chandris Group of Hotels, which in 2018 launched the Athens Marriott Hotel on the Athens Riviera. “We’ve seen a big difference in the type of client we are attracting.”
The development of big projects on the Athens Riviera, like the former Athens airport, or Hellinikon, is expected to re-shape the coastline and attract international hotel brands. The Hellinikon project has been stalled since the site—more than two times the size of Central Park in New York—was sold to Greek infrastructure company Lamda Development in 2014. Construction is finally slated to start once the government selects a preferred bidder to operate a casino in the area.
All that new investment will boost demand for qualified staff. High-end travelers are exacting and often have last-minute requests, including for bodyguards, drivers, maids, butlers, limos, luxury cars, helicopter services and yachts to explore the Greek islands, said Apostolos Geladaris, a manager at Royal Myconian Hotel & Thalasso Spa Center, one of 10 Myconian Collection luxury hotels on the island of Mykonos.
“While the customer’s image of the hotel is determined by the doorman, the maid or the barman, the butler is the direct interface for knowing what the customer wants and making it happen immediately through a hands-on approach,” he said.