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Greek travel news and views

Travel in the Greek islands can seem a marathon, given the number of islands and fascinating sights. Many visitors stay on one island but, with regular ferries and flights, there really is no need. There are seven island groups each with its own character – no two islands are the same but groups tend to share attributes, from the classic style of the Cyclades to the Venetian echoes of the Ionian; the Crusader castles of Rhodes to the green of Thassos.

Aegean Airways
Airline expands

Greek holiday airline expands. The growing Greek flier Aegean Airlines continues to expand with its new Larnaca (LCA) base, in Cyprus, launching two new seasonal routes to the Greek islands. At the end of last month the airline began operating twice-weekly flights to Rhodes (RHO) as well as two other weekly flights to Mykonos (JMK). Both new routes are using the popular A320 aircraft to ferry holiday passengers. The Rhodes route is actually a relaunch as Aegean Airlines has operated the route once before – in 2008/9. But the Larnaca – Mykonos service can be considered new as the airline has never operated this route as a regular service before. The A320 aircraft will fly on both routes until the end of the summer Greek Islands holiday season in September. In another major airline respositioning, Cyprus Airways is to form a strategic partnership with the Greek carrier Olympic Air. Cyprus Airways, the national carrier of Cyprus maintains a fleet of three A319s, five A320s and two A330-200s but has been struggling financially this year. The airline recently sold off two of its A320 aircraft. Last autumn, the Cypriot government tried to merge Cyprus Airways with the state-owned charter carrier Eurocypria Airlines, but Eurocypria ceased operations in November 2010 before a deal could be done. Cyprus Airways now has the biggest share of the Cyprus market with 21% of seats. Last August, the airline's share was 27%, despite competition from the now defunct Eurocypria and low-cost carrier Blue Air, which now has pulled out of its Larnaca base. Cyprus Airways faces more competition from Aegean Airways, not only with the latter's expansion into Cyprus, but also from six new Greek routes and a daily service between Larnaca and London Heathrow.

Marathokambos on Samos
New port for Samos resort

New port in the pipeline for the Samos holiday resort of Kambos. A competition has been launched to build a new harbour for tourist boats on the south coast of Samos island. The south-west coast of Samos has become increasingly popular in recent years. The port of Marathokambos and nearby beaches at Kambos and Votsolakia attract many thousands tourists each year. But the area can only be reached by a long and circuitous drive over the central mountains from the main harbour in the south-east of the holiday island of Samos at Pythagorion. Now the Greek National Tourism Organisation (EOT) has announced an open competition to build a harbour to shelter tourist boats in Port Marathokambos, Samos. The project includes building a new port for €3m and providing electricity at a budget cost of €1.1m. Firms have been invited to submit their plans by July 19. Foreign bidders are allowed but they must demonstrate that they have completed similar projects in the last five years. All participants must submit bank guarantees of €69,600. The project is 85% funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and 15% by the Greek government.

Aegean Airlines
Aegean Airlines

Aegean Airlines takes top award. Aegean Airlines, Greece's biggest airline, has won the Best Regional Airline Europe award at the 2011 World Airline Awards at the Paris Air Show. The airline was also runner-up in the World's Best Regional Airline category and in Airline Staff Service Excellence in Europe category. The Skytrax World Airline Awards are for  front-line service standards with more than 200 airlines competing. Mr. Dimitris Gerogiannis of Aegean said: 'All of us in Aegean are extremely proud, because we have been honoured with this award by the most important audience: our passengers.' The awards are based on passenger surveys between July 2010 and May 2011 and included  the largest international airlines to small domestic carriers.  The study analyses customer satisfaction from check-in to boarding, comfort, cleanliness, food and service.

Greek island cruise ship
Rhodes cruise ships

Rhodes tempts holiday cruise ships. Rhodes plans to tempt giant luxury cruise lines to use the port to launch Mediterranean cruises in an attempt to boost the island economy. The move follows disappointment that a major cruise operator ruled out Rhodes as a suitable port to base its holiday cruise liners, after touring the port and looking at facilities there. They said Rhodes port did not have the infrastructure needed to handle the thousands of passengers joining and leaving cruise ships on Mediterranean excursions. Now Rhodes Port Authority plans to upgrade facilities so as to attract big cruise firms to the island.  Experts say Turkey has managed to further develop ports that attract big cruise liners and that Rhodes can do the same. They say the benefits would include attracting thousand of tourists each year who will combine the cruise with a short stay in Rhodes. Holiday packages could be configured to enable tourists to use local hotels, restaurants and shops while transferring to and from cruise ships. The news comes as the port of Rhodes experienced significantly reduced tourist traffic in May 2011. Figures show a drop of about 13,000 people through the port, down to 62,830 people compared to 75,520 in May 2010. Passengers to Marmaris in Turkey totalled about 12,000 while cruise liners accounted for 48,000 tourists.

Kefalonia airport sign
Greece tourists

Greece tourist numbers up. Tourist arrivals in Greece grew more than 4% in the five months to the end of May, compared to 2010 figures. In a monthly report based on tourists arriving in the country by air, the Federation of Hellenic Tourism Enterprises (SETE) said tourist arrivals hit 2,405,030 in the five-month period, up from 2,300,959 last year with May showing the biggest rise. The increase in tourist visitors has come despite serious economic problems for Greece this year. Street riots, road blockades and protest marches have taken place in the capital of Athens over the Government's tough austerity measures. Greece is one of the world's top 20 tourist destinations, attracting about 15 million visitors annually and about 2.3 million from Britain.  Tourism experts have predicted that tourist revenues could grow by up to 10 percent in 2011 after two years of sharp decline. Tourism now accounts for about 16% of Greece's €230 billion economy and employs 746,000 people, roughly one fifth of the Greek workforce. About 14% of tourists are German and 12% are from Britain with France, Italy and the US making up the bulk of the market, although increasing numbers of Russians and East Europeans have begun to arrive. Meanwhile, domestic tourism in Greece is predicted fall 20% this year, compared with 2010. The room rental sector, which attracts most Greek tourists has about 500,000 beds but rising insecurity over finances is expected to trigger a slump in the market.  Domestic tourism Greece fell nearly 13% in the summer season last year, according to the Panhellenic Federation of Hoteliers.

Greeks protest at austerity
Greek Islands safe

Greek Islands safe despite civil unrest. Holidaymakers are welcome in the Greek Islands despite the recent spate of civil unrest on the Greek mainland. Tourist bosses have stepped in to reassure tourists that the Greek Islands are still an attractive and safe haven for a summer holiday in 2011. And the UK Foreign Office says in it's online advice to Greek Island holidaymakers that the overall level of the advice has not changed. 'There are no travel restrictions in place . . . Greek people are renowned for their hospitality. The Greek police are used to dealing with large numbers of foreign tourists, especially on the islands and do so in a low-key way. An estimated 14.9 million people visited Greece and the Greek Islands in 2009, attracted by the guaranteed sunshine, beautiful beaches, clean seas and ancient sites.  But tourism industry experts say they are seeing a drop of about 10-12% in bookings in 2011. With tourism accounting for about 15.5% of gross domestic product, Greece can ill afford to see a prolonged downturn. Road closures, worker strikes and riots have rocked Athens but tourists say they have seen no evidence of unrest in the Greek Islands.  An island visitor said: 'Protests are confined totally to the mainland and specifically Athens, with the islands being almost entirely unaffected, only experiencing the occasional 24-hour public-sector strike, which is not particularly unusual anyway.' He added: 'In fact, on the islands, everyone is making extra efforts to show all who visit that the Greek islands are a perfect holiday destination. They want to counteract the negative media coverage.' Along with Spain, Italy, France and Turkey, Greece is traditionally one of Europe's top five summer holiday destinations. The Foreign Office website adds: 'Around 2.35 million British nationals visit Greece every year (Source: Civil Aviation Authority). Most visits are trouble-free but you should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as you would in the UK. Greece is a stable democracy, however, public protests are a standard feature of Greek political life. Take precautions for your personal safety and avoid public gatherings and demonstrations.'

Greek island cruise ship
More cruises

More cruise ships in the Greek Islands. Port authorities in the Greek Islands predict a rise in cruise ship visits in 2011 of up to 15% following the lifting of restrictions. Under new laws passed recently, international cruise companies can now embark and disembark passengers at Greek ports provide they sign a formal three-year contract. Up to now only Greek owned vessels could operate cruises in the Greek islands. The move could lead to an economic bonanza for cruise companies. Markos Foros, president of the Association of Greek Passenger Shipping Companies, estimates the cumulative potential value of lifting the restrictions at as much as €1bn a year. Conditions are that cruise ships must have a minimum capacity of 49 passengers and offer round-trip cruises that start and end at the same port and with a minimum duration of 48 hours. Ships must also remain a minimum of eight hours in port to take on and discharge passengers. Greece is already a major global cruise destination, with as many as 1.8m passengers per year visiting the mainland and taking cruises in the Greek Islands. Greece now is expected to get a 10 to 15% increase in cruises. The port of Thessaloniki saw 36 cruise ships anchored in 2010 and expects increase in traffic of around 20% this year. Heraklion, Crete, forecasts a 10% rise on the 220 visiting cruise ships last year. Rhodes, which in 2010 tied up 539 ships and Mykonos, which last year hosted 700 cruise ships both expect to see a rise of 10% this year.

Ryanair planes on the tarmac
Low cost airlines

Greece to woo low cost airlines. Greece looks set to boost its bid to bring in more tourists with a series of initiatives aimed at attracting low cost airlines. Tourism Minister Paul Geroulanos told a conference that low cost airlines could hold the key to opening up new areas to tourism. He said: 'Greece has a very good opportunity to develop low cost airlines.' Initiatives include expanding facilities at existing airports such as Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos, opening up military airfields to civilian traffic and a new airport management company to develop regional airports. Greece has already slashed landing fees and eased regulations in a bid to attract more tourist travel to Greece and the Greek islands. Transport minister Spyros Vougias said low cost airlines had experienced 'significant growth' in the he last decade and that even in the midst of a global recession low cost airlines has continued to expand to new destinations. He added: "There is a concerted effort by the state and other agencies to attract new airlines, particularly in low cost areas and regional airports that are of interest to tourists but also to opening new markets through bilateral air agreements."

Seaplane lands near Corfu
Seaplanes take off

Seaplanes take off on Greek islands. The Greek government is paving the way for more seaplane services between the Greek islands in a bid to boost tourism. The Civil Aviation Authority has approved 50 sites where seaplanes can land and take off as a Bill is finalised in the Greek parliament. Tourist officials say two companies have already expressed interest in operating seaplane flights. The Greek Deputy Tourism Minister George Nikitiadis said the move could pave the way for tourism on many smaller, less visited, islands. He said: "To develop the islands the use of seaplanes should provide a major boost to tourism in the href="Greek Islands. It will facilitate the arrival of tourists on small islands with no airport where access by boat is difficult." Hopes are high that seaplane services can start taking off in 2012 between Greek islands such as Rhodes, Kos, Tilos, Nisyros, Kalymnos, Patmos, Alonissos, Skopelos, Serifos, Symi, Lesvos, Samos, Astypalea, Anafi, Lipsi and Leros. A bid to run seaplane services in the Ionian islands in 2004 failed after five years following complaints by AirSea Lines of overwhelming government bureaucracy that not only forced the use of Greek pilots on all flights but put a severe limit on passenger numbers.

Taverna sign
Getting around in Greece

Holidaymakers on a Greek Island holiday for the first time will usually find that getting around is fairly easy. Most Greek islands usually have some form of public transport, and most will have a taxi service of sorts. If not, there is usually car and motorbike hire to be found in the main port or in the main resorts of most Greek islands. Bus services are the cheapest but note that most bus services are there to serve the local population, not the holiday trade, so routes may not always go to the best beaches. Buses are usually modern and clean and the services are generally punctual but buses can get very crowded in the main holiday season, especially mid-morning and at teatime when tourists are most likely to be heading to and from the beaches. On smaller islands the bus service can simply vanish out of season when the buses are used only for school runs. Car and bike hire outfits can be found on almost all island, even tiny ones like Lipsi. Hire rates tend to be reasonable and locals are always prepared to haggle, especially out of season. Don't expect the best car for the cheapest deal though. Check the car first for dents and scratches – they can get taken over some very rough tracks on an island holiday. Bicycle hire has become very popular for getting around on Greek islands lately and it's worth considering if you prefer more out-of-the-way beaches. Roads have improved greatly in recent years although care is needed, especially on smaller islands. Most islands are very hilly (they are just the tops of mountains sticking out of the sea after all) and it's easy to ignore the road while taking in the views. Sharp bends can go unsignposted and unfenced, rocks often fall onto the highway, and there is always the prospect of a goat leaping out or finding a large snake basking on the hot tar. Finally, a word of warning about signposts and maps. On many islands maps, signs and reality appear to bear little relation to one another. This has improved on the more popular islands in recent years but, away from the tourist centres (and that is usually why you hire your own transport in the first place) you can find maps with village names in English, road signs with village names in Greek and no sign of a village anywhere anyway. If you get lost, stop at the nearest taverna, buy a drink and enjoy the sunshine. Adopt the Greek's favourite word 'avrio'. It literally translates as 'tomorrow' but, like the Spanish 'manana' it means so much more, or less in this case. Think to yourself 'I'm lost on a Greek Island – what more could I ask for?'

Yachts moored in Rhodes
Greek yachts

Greek yacht charters sail into trouble. Yacht charter in the Greek Islands may hold the key to boosting incomes and giving the Greek holiday industry a much-needed shot in the arm. Industry experts are to gather in Athens for the Posidonia Sea Tourism Forum aimed at discussing the growth potential for yacht, cruise and ferry shipping in the Greek Islands. Yacht sailing and charter is expected to top the agenda in a region popular for Greek island hopping. But yacht charter chiefs warn of stiff competition from neighbours. In the Greek Islands demand for yacht sailing has been declining for years. Industry analysts blame a bureaucratic government, fewer visitors and rising competition from nearby destinations. Experts have no doubt that yachting activity can be a major boost to local economies, creating new jobs across a wide range of sectors. In Spain, for example, a lively marina can generates nine jobs for every marina worker in sectors such as catering, sports and education. A study by the Spanish Federation of Tourist Harbors in 2010 revealed that yachting tourists who spends €100 in a marina also spends an average €450 in the surrounding area – almost twice the average of a normal tourist. But building new marinas is not enough to attract more business. Visitors also look for good services nearby. Some want local laws streamlined to help marinas develop more and better services and a cut in taxes to attract more boats. The industry has also introduced an international benchmark to help improve standards, and quality. Turkey has already 10 marinas that have picked up the Gold Anchor Award. New marinas in Montenegro, Croatia and Turkey are already a threat to Greek Island holidays.

Thassos beach
New Olympic islands

New Greek Islands from Olympic Holidays. Olympic Holidays has announced new Greek Island destinations for its 2011 brochure. Thassos, Lesbos and Samos feature in the 2011 beach holiday destinations. Thassos beach holiday have been almost the exclusive domain of Thomson Holidays for several years now. And Thassos and is one of the best selling beach holiday destinations on my Greek Island Holiday website. Olympic Holidays is only promoting a couple of holidays at the popular Golden Beach and Limenaria but more may follow. Lesvos beach holidays are getting some good promotion from Olympic Holidays with a total of eight holidays on offer. They include Greek island holidays in the popular resort of Molyvos and at the nearby beach resorts of Petra and Anaxos with a couple of holidays on offer in the growing beach holiday resort of Skala Kalloni. But it is Samos beach holidays that get the biggest push this year with 13 holidays in five resorts at Samos Town, Gagou, Kokkari, Pythagorion and Votsolakia. Pity they missed out Psili Ammos (east) though which I think the best beach resort on Samos.

Greek ferry
Island hop on Greek ferries

I get frequent emails from people planning holidays to the Greek islands but worry about advance booking of ferry tickets. The biggest headaches are not being able to find ferry schedules, concern about getting a seat and trying to link up ferry sailings without having to stay overnight. Despite these concerns Greek island hopping is, for many, the best way to explore the Greek islands. During the summer there are more than 7,000 ferry journeys every month to the Greek islands and to countries such as Italy, Turkey and Israel. For those who want to take in several Greek Islands while on holiday there is no better way to travel. I used to fly out to Greece on package holidays but these days I just book a flight and plan my holiday when I arrive. There is always a room for the night and usually a ferry in the morning to take me wherever I please. The freedom you get from Greek Island hopping far outweighs the minor hassle of finding a room for the night – just remember to pack lightly, not so difficult on a sunny beach holiday on the Greek islands. Greek Island ferry schedules Timetables are a shy breed. Summer schedules are rarely published before April and there is no fully comprehensive printed timetable. The best site for checking ferry sailings on-line is Greek Travel Pages but note that timetables can be non-existent early in the season. This doesn't mean ferries aren't sailing it just means they don't always know when. It is mainly down to local knowledge, especially on the Greek Islands. Getting a ticket You can book a ticket in advance from an on-line agent such as Ferries in Greece but it is hardly worth the effort. Ferries are rarely full except on public holidays, when they are usually more frequent anyway. Sailings may also be delayed or even cancelled in poor weather so it is better to book on the day, although you could book a couple of days in advance at busy weekends. Easter and July/August are also very busy times. Ticket kiosks are at every port and they often post timetables and prices. Staff usually speak English and they will point out the quay where the ferry docks. The only snag is that staff are often reluctant to tell you about other ferry lines. If they say 'no ferries until tomorrow' check at another company's kiosk and they will probably have a sailing . In the past, fares were fixed but, although still controlled, they are now much more open market forces. Companies charge different fares for the same ticket according to the speed of the boat. Traditional slow ferries are the cheapest while faster ferries are usually 20 per cent more expensive. High speed ferries and catamarans, although twice as fast as slow ferries, usually command double the fare. Ferry types Superfast Ferry: High Speed Ferries and Flying Cats are big and fast. They take vehicles and passengers and may have cabins for longer voyages. They mostly run long routes through Cyclades and Dodecanese Islands as well as the Italian/Ionian routes. Expect comfortable seats, lounge areas, TV and premium prices. Hellas Flying Dophins: These are hydrofoils that ply short haul routes and only carry passengers. Russian designed for river cruising they are suitable for calm seas only and sailings can be cancelled in high winds. You plonk down in an airplane seat and, if lucky, get a view of the spray through the misted-up tiny porthole. They are fast but expensive Car Ferry: These carry vehicles and passengers but are slow and basic. The mainstay of the ferry system. Some may be faster that others and may offer extra facilities. If it says Express on the side it is probably a faster boat. Boarding the ferry The name of the ferry company – Minoan Lines, Blue Star Ferries – will be printed on your ticket and emblazoned on the side of the boat so you shouldn't miss it. A hooter blast usually signals its arrival. Stand well back from the main docking area to allow the cars and passengers to disembark first. Follow the crowd onto the ferry and leave your luggage at the side of the car loading bay. Make your way to the main stairs (follow everyone else) where someone will check your ticket. If you are in a car then wait in the queue to be directed aboard. Aboard the ferry Most of the larger ferries are modern and have lots of facilities like bars, cafes, toilets and seats both indoors and out. Queues build up at the bars quickly. Outdoor seats look inviting but can be hard on the backside and it can be windy and chilly too. Indoors will probably be air conditioned with comfy seats. Smaller ferries won't have many facilities but these ferries only operate on short routes anyway. Disembarking when you arrive A tannoy announcement in Greek and English will signal arrival well before the ferry docks and give you time to gather belongings. Make your way to the lower deck (just join the queue) and find your bags. Ferry staff sometimes pull bags out ready, so yours may not be where you left it. Passengers get off first, then vehicles. Move out of the way when you hit the quay or you risk getting mown down by traffic. At the port gates there is often a crowd of locals offering cheap rooms and there is usually a taxi rank nearby and, more usefully, several cafes and tavernas to rest up until the ferry leaves and the crowds die down. The most important thing is to make sure I'm back for the return flight a couple of days before I return home.

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