-A popular holiday destination, the state now wishes to attract more aff luent visitors-

High season for Mediterranean tourist mecca

The Greek government hopes to generate $321 million in foreign investment for tourism projects over the next six to 10 years. Development minister Nikos Christodoulakis says 75 per cent of this will come from the private sector, half of which will be invested in the greater Athens region. Under the investment initiative, private investors can either buy outright or invest in tourism assets held by the state-owned Hellenic Tourist Estates. There are some 250 facilities, which are operated by 40 separate state-owned enterprises with a combined turnover last year of 70 million euros (about $66 million) and gross profits of 20 million euros.

The government is hoping that the new projects, which range from golf courses to marinas, will attract more affluent holiday-makers, particularly in the wake of the 2004 Olympic Games hosted by Athens. Ventures proposed in the Attica region surrounding the city include a theme park, a water park and an aquarium. "The Games will give Greece a very prominent position in world news, attract visitors who would otherwise never think of coming here, and create a positive sentiment for Greece," says Mr Christodoulakis. Boosting foreign investment is a top priority for the state after securing entry to the euro zone in January, he adds.

Tourism is one of Greece's major sources of income, and it will continue to contribute an increasing share to the gross domestic product (GDP). Around 11.5 million people visit the country every year and the Greek share of the UK package-holiday market has risen by five per cent to 16 per cent over the past two years. The government is promoting the sector by making it easier for foreign investors to develop the modern facilities demanded by visitors. State-owned, tourism-related properties are being sold off, while the restrictions on building new luxury hotels in Athens have been lifted and generous financial incentives are being granted to approved developments.

The Hellenic Centre for Investment (Elke) has earmarked dozens of sites for new golf courses, health spas, marinas, equestrian centres, year-round conference centres and upmarket holiday villages. Incentives include cash grants and up to 70 per cent tax allowances, and Elke has reduced red tape for investors. As the contribution of the manufactur-ing world to GDP steadily declines, invest-ment in the leisure industry is increasing. Tourism contributes more than seven per cent of GDP and is the most important ser-vice sector in Greece, employing more than 650,000 people during the high season. For northern Europeans, guaranteed sunshine in the summer months has made Greece a leading destination. The majority of tourists arrive from Germany, followed by the UK.

The attractions are immediately obvious - hundreds of unspoilt beaches and the warm, clear waters of the Aegean, magnificent scenery barely explored by visitors, ancient ruins, and a rich intellectual history that continues to influence Western philosophy even today. The authorities are keen to expand the length of the tourist season, a concept easily achievable given the country's warm and sunny Mediterranean climate. Emphasis is being placed on more specialist holidays for walkers, climbers, golfers and bird-watchers. Elke has also earmarked several sites for the development of health spas. Conference events and incentive holidays are being pro-moted to stimulate tourism all year round.

Each region of Greece offers a rich con-trast of landscapes, from ancient olive tree groves and vineyards to the mountainous interior where winter skiing, horse-riding and rambling holidays are becoming pop-ular. Dozens of islands dot the turquoise seas, each offering a unique atmosphere. Among the most popular islands are those easily reached by fast hydrofoil and ferry services from the mainland, including Spetses, Poros and Kythira. A little more effort is required if you are in search of the famous places in Greek mythology such as the uninhabited island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Many islands are connected by air, either directly or via Athens.

Corfu, for example, the greenest of all, is a complete holiday destination in its own right. Crete, the biggest of the Greek islands, offers spectacular scenery, including the Samaria Gorge, the longest in Europe. In addition, the island boasts a wealth of archi-tectural gems and archaeological sites. The Cyclades are very popular, and it is worth booking accommodation well in advance during the high season. Of the dozens of islands in the Cyclades group, Andros, is generally considered to be the most beautiful. But Paxos, Tinos, Syros, Naxos and Mykonos offer their own unique charms as well. For all its attractions, Greece faces tough competition from other European destinations such as Spain and France, as well as its immediate neighbour, Turkey. But the Olympics are bound to give a huge boost to Greece, the effects of which will be felt long after the Games are over.