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Thu 5 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Greece is the word

It's steeped in culture, has sun-kissed beaches, a wide range of water sport-related activities, great shopping and luxury hotels, so why is Greece overlooked by the majority of Gulf-based travellers and agents?

It's steeped in culture, has sun-kissed beaches, a wide range of water sport-related activities, great shopping and luxury hotels, so why is Greece overlooked by the majority of Gulf-based travellers and agents?

Greece lies at the juncture of Europe, Asia and Africa; it is the birthplace of both democracy and the Olympic Games. In season it has sun, sea and sand-a-plenty, while the country's infrastructure has long been adapted to accommodate tourists as it remains a popular destination among Europeans with a good selection of top-end hotels and private apartments available.

In fact, if you wanted to list things you would look for to help sell a destination, Greece would tick all the right boxes, but the actual numbers of arrivals received by Greece from this region is embarrassingly low. The problem is not with the destination itself, but its non-existent profile in this region.

Greece currently lacks the exposure in the Middle East market for it to be immediately considered as a destination, either for the travel agents to sell, or their clients to contemplate visiting; presently the most likely visitor from the region will be the European ex-pat traveller.

"We have to work on this market," concedes Greek Chamber of Commerce director George A Hatzimarkos.

"I am confident that if people visit the country once, they will come again."

The need for educating travel agents and tour operators to help sell the region is beginning to filter through. The Greek Minister for Tourism was in Dubai for last month's Arabian Travel Market and Hatzimarkos is hopeful that the results of some of his meetings at the show will see more funds allocated to promoting Greece in the Middle East.

Emirates Holidays product manager Europe & Americas Bettina Wenger also reinforces the need for agent training.

"I wouldn't say there's no demand [for Greece] but we feel the more training we do and the more knowledge we pass on, the stronger demand will become," she says.

"The flight from Dubai to Athens is only four-and-a-half hours, so even for a weekend break, it is ideal."

UAE nationals can enter Greece with a standard Schengen Visa - peak season is from May to December and after that the tourism industry basically hibernates until the weather blooms again.

"It's not currently a very well known destination in the Middle East, but we're pushing it because we believe in it; there will be growth in this area," says The Travel Collection marketing manager Tracey Freeman. Starting with Athens

The Greek capital is named after the ancient goddess Athena whose favorite animal was the owl and it's a fitting symbol for the city's nocturnal nature. The Greek capital is known as a party city with heaving nightlife and the locals are renowned for their friendliness and accommodating nature.

Athens is also Greece's hub and a multifaceted city that boasts some of the country's best shopping, dining and cultural offerings.

But if your clients are not in the mood to be active there's always the option of simply lazing on one of Athens' famously clean beaches. If that doesn't appeal then there are plenty more genteel and sophisticated diversions to take in.

The Acropolis is the stand out attraction for Athens where ancient monuments such as the pantheon and the Erechitheion can be admired.

There are also numerous art galleries, and museums. The National Theatre of Greece is located in Athens as well as more than 100 cinemas.Diverse festivals ranging from celebrations of classic literature to world peace concerts abound throughout the summer months, so it can cater to a cross section of clients, from honeymooners to families.

There are a plethora of hotels from which to choose, catering to all price ranges from budget to high-end, including the luxury Cape Sounio, boasting seven independent villas and an elixir spa for pampering. Island trips

Outside the capital Greece has much more to offer including the Greek Islands, which are easily accessible from Athens, notes Emirates' Wenger.

"People don't realise how easy it is [to get from Athens to the islands]," she says.

"You can get flights or get ferry connections from Athens - this is what we must educate people about because once customers and agents are aware, the numbers of Middle East visitors to the islands will increase."

Several tour operators, including Emirates Holidays, offer packages to Greece that incorporate the Greek islands, while Greek island cruises are offered by many cruise lines.

An easy starting point is UAE-based cruise agent, Cruise Master, which represents several cruise companies that offer Greek itineraries as well as Al Rostamani Travel, which recently launched its ‘Destinations' holidays brochure featuring both Greece and cruise options.

Alpha Holidays' product manager John Flower says agents should offer clients an Athens city break combined with either a one-island stay or a week-long Greek island cruise.

"I don't understand why Greece isn't a more popular with travellers from this region," he says. "Greece is incredibly safe, friendly, has an excellent quality of hotels and is brilliant value for money."

He believes the islands should be the easiest to sell. "Personally I think there is a romance to Greece that has to be experienced to be appreciated. So leading into honeymoons - if you take the islands as a starting point - you will find nothing better."

Greek island cruises are abundant and are extremely passenger-friendly with amenities matching that of a first-class hotel, such as stately cabins with balconies, pools, restaurants, bars, spas, restaurants and children's facilities.

Cruising gives the clients the choice of which islands to visit. It's the perfect option for those who want to explore the island but not be divorced from city life for too long.

"We do cruises that predominantly cover Greece," says Royal Caribbean executive director Lakshimi Durai.

"Our round trips cover Italy and Turkey and visit four or five of the Greek islands and we have found that there is interest from the Middle East for this type of package; clients want to see the islands, but also want the big cities as well."

If you count every rocky outcrop there are about 3000 islands and islets scattered across the Aegean and Ionian Seas, but only about 227 of them are inhabited.

Greece has a substantial number of active ports allowing for accessible inter-island transportation; yachts are also available for those who simply want to sail the sea.

The Cyclades islands are the most well known of the Greek Islands and include Santorini and Mykonos, which are the two most popular islands in Greece. Ferry trips are four to five hours from Athens to the closest islands (Kythnos, Syros, Tinos, Mykonos, Sifnos) and from eight to 10 hours to the furthest (Santorini) depending on how many stops are made.

The high-speed vessels take half the time but cost twice as much. There are daily ferries from Pireaus (Athens' port) to all these islands, with the exception of Kea, which is accessible from Lavrion and Andros, which you get to from Rafina.Mykonos is the clubbing island with intense nightlife, likely to appeal more to singles and younger age groups. For a quick escape to a more sedate setting, Tinos, with excellent beaches, traditional villages, beautiful landscape and a rich history is close at hand.

Kythnos is the least touristy with hot springs and nice beaches; it is a favourite stop over for sailboats and yachts journeying around the Cyclades.

Globus, represented by Dubai-based Al Rostamani Travel, offers a ‘Jewels of the Aegean' escorted eight-day cruise-and-tour. It starts with a tour of the Acropolis in Athens then tours the Dodecanese islands to places like Mykanos, Patmos, Rhodes and Crete, culminated with a visit to Santorini, the volcanic islands known as ‘The pearl of the Aegean'.

The most popular island in the Dodecanese is Rhodes. Its old town is something special - a medieval walled city and one of the most important historical sites in the world. There is also plenty of archaeology with undiscovered areas of beauty to seek out if sitting on the beach all day fails to appeal.

The largest and among the most popular of the islands is Crete. Today, the island's tourism infrastructure caters to all tastes, including a very wide range of accommodation.

The island's facilities take in large luxury hotels like the four-star Asterion with 13 rooms, 38 private apartments and eight suites with private pools, to smaller, family-owned apartments.

Visitors reach the island via two international airports in Heraklion and Chania, or by boat to the main ports of Heraklion, Chania, Rethimno, and Agios Nikolaos.

There is also the option of sailing from Pireas in the late evening on a luxury yacht, dine on board, enjoy your luxury cabin, and then arrive in Crete the following day, ideal for the higher-end client.

Luxury stays

More examples of luxury accommodation available in Greece include the five-star Amirandes Beach Resort on the island of Crete represented by Dubai-based The Travel Collection. The property boasts 52 private suites, eight bungalows and 18 luxury villas with their own pool.

"This would appeal to both honeymooners and families," says Travel Collections' Freeman, "with so much space to themselves clients who place a priority on privacy are catered to.

Clients get their own private swimming pool with their own walkway down to the water and in addition to that they get the feeling that they're on an island. You're surrounded by water both ways; it's totally stunning."

There is also a shared Olympic-sized main sea water pool, water sports equipment available for use and babysitting facilities available for families.

The quantity of islands with their dearth of different attractions means there are sufficient options to satisfy every type of travellers need. The accessibility of all the islands in relation to each other means travellers could decide what islands to visit during the holiday, rather than having to plan ahead.

"I think anything that involves the islands is going to be popular," says Flower. "If the tourism board were more active here, [in the GCC] I am sure that you would see vast improvements in numbers heading to Greece."

How to sell toCouples: can enjoy a peaceful retreat with their own private villa at the Amirandes in Crete. With 24-hour room service and its own pool, the villa offers privacy and seclusion.

Culture Seekers: should start with the Acropolis in Athens, one of the remaining wonders of the world, but head to Kos for archaeology, with Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine and Venetian sites thrown into the mix, as well as beaches. Suggest they finish with Tilos for its spectacular monastery and medieval castle.

Sports enthusiasts: should head to the beach of Athens or the island or Paros in the Cyclades known as the motherland for Greek windsurfing.

Top-end clients: suggest the all-villa Cape Sounio in Athens, which offers seclusion but also easy access to the city. Dubai-based The Travel Collection offers several luxury properties in Greece. These include:

Athens: Cape Sounio: www.grecotel.com/athens-sounio

Athens: King George Palace: www.kinggeorge.gr

Corfu: Corfu Imperial: www.corfu-imperial.com

Crete: Amirandes: www.grecotel.com/crete/amirandes

Mykonos: Mykonos Blu: www.mykonosblu.com

Peloponnese: Mandola Rosa: www.grecotel.com/peloponnese

And although the figures are currently low for visitors from the Gulf region, they have been climbing, and the opinion of many within the industry is that with promotion there will be a greater surge of interest.

"Certainly in terms of sales for Alpha Holidays, the numbers are up and improving all the time," says Flower. "It just seems to be a case of encouraging that interest and then waiting for it to bear fruit." Sample itinerary

A four-night ‘Athens and beyond' itinerary taking in Athens and the island offered by Globus and represented by Dubai-based Al Rostamani Travel in Dubai.

Day 1

Arrival: Meet at Athens airport and transfer to hotel. Remainder of day at leisure,

Day 2

Athens Sightseeing: After breakfast, pick-up from the hotel for a half-day morning city tour including a visit to the Acropolis. Remainder of the day at leisure and overnight in Athens Hotel (B&B).

Day 3

One-day cruise: After breakfast, pick-up from the hotel and transfer to the port for the cruise to the three Saronic islands of Aegina, Poros, Hydra. Lunch served on board. In the evening return to Athens and transfer to the hotel.

Day 4

One-day Delphi: After breakfast, pick-up from the hotel and depart Athens for Delphi. Drive via Thebes and the picturesque town of Arachova. On the slopes of Mt. Parnassus visit the archaeological site and the museum. Lunch included. Return to Athens in the afternoon. Or, instead, the one-day Argolis tour can be taken. Overnight in Athens Hotel.

Day 5

Departure: Transfer to the airport or, extend your stay in Greece.

Price: 3620 AED ($985) per person.

The sales pitchGetting there

Emirates Airline: from Dubai to Athens, daily. Dubai to Rhodes connection planned for near future.

Olympic Airlines: from Dubai to Athens, daily.

Qatar Airways: from Doha, daily.

Visas

A Schengen Visa is required for all GCC nationals. Passport holders from the US, Australia, England, Ireland and Canada can obtain visas upon arrival.

Currency: one Euro: US $1.55

Packages

Alpha Holidays:

Rhodes: from AED 855 (US $232) per person for a three-night stay at the four-star Mediterranean Hotel. The price include breakfast as well as return port transfers.

Crete: from AED 1180 ($321) per person for a three-night stay at the four-star Pantheon Place Hotel. The price includes breakfast as well as return port transfers.

Emirates Holidays:

Athens: from AED 5015 (US $1365) per person for a three-night stay at the five-star Hilton. Prices include return economy class airfare, transfers, breakfast, room tax and service charges.

Al Rostamani Holidays:

Athens: from AED 2420 ($652) per person for a three night stay. Prices include two half-day tours, a guide, transportation and entrance fees.

Cruise through tour operator Globus Holidays: from AED 5325 (1450) per person for an eight-day cruise. Prices include tour meals, accommodation, sightseeing and transfers. Visiting Athens, Cruising: Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Patmos, Rhodes, Heraklion, Santorini.

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