Sustainable travel and tourism in Greece – a local perspective
“It is about respect. Respect for yourself, the locations you visit and the people you meet along the way”.
Greece. The cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of democracy. With its azure seas, ancient heritage, and sun-kissed islands, Greece beckons with a timeless allure, captivating the soul of every traveller. We long for the whitewashed charm of Cycladic villages, secluded beaches, adorned with myths and shimmering sands, dreaming of an adventure with no end. Had it not been for scheduling conflicts, Athens and Greece would have been our next stop to explore sustainable tourism after our month in Napoli and the Amalfi coast.
It’s no surprise the country attracts crowds. But how many selfie-stick-wielding tourists can it cope with before they blot out the sunset? One Planet Journey went straight to the source to get some much needed perspective. Today, we catch up with Tina Sklavolia-Kyriakis, an inspiring serial entrepreneur from Greece who has founded Alternative Athens & Back to the Routes, two innovative travel companies that propose a different way of travelling. Alternative Athens offers thematic tours and authentic local experiences in Athens, while Back to the Routes offers original road trips throughout the country. Tina is an expert in destination branding, experience design, and tour guide training. Who better to tell us about sustainable travel and tourism in Greece?
We met in Barcelona during a conference for sustainable travel startups. At the time you were a few years in on your tour company, Alternative Athens. How have things developed after?
Meeting in 2017 feels like a century ago! So much has happened, including the pandemic, which was a life-changing event for most tour companies. Since then, Alternative Athens has experienced substantial expansion, and we solidified both our product range and clientele. I can say we are at a better point now than in 2019, but it took great effort to muddle through these times. Surprisingly, the pandemic was also a big gift, as it provided the opportunity to work on things that we wanted to for a long time but we didn’t get around to. We invested a lot in internal processes and infrastructure and that enabled growth and will continue for years to come. Furthermore, it allowed us to launch a fresh brand!
I understand you started a second business, Back to the Routes. Do tell.
Well, Back to the Routes is our new baby, a baby I’m truly fond of. 😊
The company offers road trips that combine the flexibility of independent travel, with local insight, handcrafted trip planning, and the ability to personalise journeys on-the-go through our user-friendly app.
It was an idea I had already in 2016, but I never had the chance to bring into life, with great fortune, as development required a significant amount of time (almost three years).
The concept came from something I was missing in my travels. I am an independent traveller and don’t appreciate travelling in an organised, pre-arranged way, but of course I want to optimise my schedule at a destination, like everyone else. What would usually happen was that trip planning took too long, or if I hadn’t planned enough, I would spend too much time while on the road trying to find what to do, where to go, what is worth seeing and suddenly it would be noon and we would still be stuck at the hotel. It’s a situation familiar to a lot of travellers, I imagine!
Back to the Routes came as a solution to this personal problem: How to stay independent as a traveller and decide on the moment based on how I’m feeling, but at the same time make an informed decision in a quick and efficient manner.
Our road trips currently cover the whole of mainland Greece and the islands of Santorini, Paros, Naxos and Crete. In the future, we will include more islands, but we are already at a good point for those who want to explore a big part of Greece.
It’s a truly innovative way of travelling, that we haven’t found anywhere, and I hope it works, for us and for the travellers!
Both of your travel companies possess a strong sustainability component. Did this come as a reaction to drawbacks with the tourism industry or more of as a natural driving force from within yourself?
It’s a bit of both. As a traveller I hate mass tourism and I try to avoid it as much as I can. When I travel I want the major highlights of course, but what interests me most is to understand the local culture, how residents live, where they shop, go out, etc. In order to do that, you need to scratch below the surface, but it takes a long time to find authentic places or to get in touch with locals and sometimes it’s not possible without the help of a local. With both our brands, this is what I wanted to achieve: accessibility.
With Alternative Athens, sustainability comes in the form of small groups, personal contact with the guides, high-quality venues, and walking tours that give you the chance to explore what hides behind closed doors.
Back to the Routes focuses on exploring places on and off the beaten path, in even smaller groups, staying at boutique hotels (often family-run) and of course by off-setting any harm done on the environment, mainly due to the use of cars or ferries with a high carbon footprint.
What’s funny is, I never said “Let’s do something about sustainability now”. I did whatever I personally believed in, and it happened to be the right thing.
With Alternative Athens, I hadn’t even thought about the concept of sustainability before the Booking.com event where we met in 2017. I can’t recall that we mentioned it once on our website. A friend came and said “Hey this contest may be interesting for you, you should go” and I replied “But we’re not into Green Tourism or anything” and he explained that it’s not only about the environment. It was then I realised that what we do happens to be sustainable too.
What does sustainable travel and tourism mean to you?
Good question. Lately, the first strand of thought that pops up when I hear the word is “scam”. Even banks advertise its “sustainable banking”.
In terms of travel an image comes to mind: I’m in the middle of a place I’ve never been to before and it’s calm and I am left alone with my thoughts and feelings, observing what’s happening around me, deciphering all that’s new and interesting.
Sustainable is the luxury to experience something completely new and to have the time to feel it and understand it at your own pace.
It is about respect. Respect for yourself, the locations you visit and the people you meet along the way. You can’t become sustainable; you can only BE sustainable. It’s a system of values, not marketing.
Greece draws massive crowds, some places suffering from overtourism. How do your businesses work to combat this issue?
Until now we didn’t do anything specific about overtourism. Our companies are built to refrain from it as a default. However, in the last couple of years, it has become an increasing concern for me, especially for Alternative Athens. If Athens becomes too crowded and you see tourists everywhere you go, what remains authentic? What do we have left to show that is off the beaten path? We notice that many places we used to visit are overrun with visitors and it’s only going to get worse.
As a company you can’t combat overtourism on your own, but you can do a few things that minimise your own impact: off-set your carbon footprint, keep groups small, try to spread your tours in times that are less crowded, introduce or move some of your experiences to places that are still not visited by tourists. For us, the differentiating factor will ultimately be consistent high quality and the human dimension of our offerings.
Customer satisfaction leads to repeat business. In what ways do you work to deliver a premium experience?
For local tourism brands, travellers rarely visit the same place twice or more in their lifetime. For me, customer satisfaction is consistency, the quality of our guides, the content of our tours and the attention to detail in operations.
Do you perceive any differences in terms of what travellers desire after the pandemic?
The trends existed pre-pandemic, it merely accelerated them: smaller groups, more personalised experiences and a heightened search for meaning in travelling and in life in general. In the future, sightseeing won’t be enough. Making sense of what you see and learning about local cultures will be more important towards the overall satisfaction gained from a trip.
Do you find travellers more aware of sustainable tourism in Greece as of late?
The younger generations, yes, a lot. We recognise a higher awareness among tourists coming from certain European countries (Northern Europe, Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, UK). Less from US travellers, but I believe they appreciate it when immersed in it.
What are the key ingredients that make a travel experience truly authentic when exploring Greece?
Clearly the places you choose to visit and the local insight to which you have access.
There are many locations in Greece untouched by tourism and industrialisation and that travellers never heard of. The right information sources and people who will show you around matters. At all costs, try to avoid August when visiting Greece!
What’s your most cherished travel memory from your childhood and lastly, do you have a tip for hidden gems in Greece?
Swimming at Lalaria beach on Skiathos island when I was 11. It was a miracle to me: the first time I saw turquoise waters, so clear that I could make out every single fish and tiny details on the ocean floor, perfectly round white pebbles in and out of the water and hardly any people around. I’ve never returned since and I prefer to keep it that way.
As for hidden gems that travellers can explore, I would say all of Northern Greece, especially Epirus, and the islands of the northeastern Aegean Sea, like Chios, Lesvos, Fournoi, etc.
It’s a wrap! A big thank you to Tina for the local insights and interesting chat. The team at One Planet Journey wish her and the country all the best. Interested in a more in-depth exploration of Greece? Contact Alternative Athens and Back to the Routes and have a journey of a lifetime!
What’s your favourite Greek island? What was your experience with crowds? Let us know in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from travel tips, interviews and inspirational examples of sustainable travel.