Emerging from years of foreign occupation and civil war, Greeks in the 1950s wanted something new and Aris Konstantinidis was eager to oblige. An architect by trade, Konstantinidis envisaged sleek, modern accommodation for travellers and tourists alike. Enter Xenia, a nationwide hotel construction programme giving Greeks a taste of modernism. Between 1957 and 1974, under the auspices of the Hellenic Tourism Organisation, Konstantinidis and his colleagues built over 40 Xenia properties. To an extent, Greek hospitality has moved on from the days of Xenia. By 1983, the economic winds had shifted and the group was sold off by the state. Nowadays, the vast majority of the country’s hotels are privatised, owned by a variety of foreign and domestic organisations. Yet in the essentials, in the way Greek hotels often wallow into the Mediterranean landscape around them, Konstantinidis and his legacy endure. More to the point, the numbers indicate the remarkable popularity of these properties even now. According to work by the Central Bank of Greece, the number of UK arrivals jumped by 181% last year, with 2022 seeing the country become one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth.

But, if many travellers flocked to the properties and destinations typified by Xenia – with their white walls and seaside views, on islands like Naxos and Rhodes – Greek hospitality is also changing. Classic beach holidays may still be popular, but punters and operators alike are also eager to explore everything else this ancient country has to offer, from wooded hills to energetic cities. That, in turn, is pushing the scale of Greek hospitality even further, with the industry expected to reach the €27bn mark by 2030, according to findings from INSETE. Not that the path ahead is necessarily clear. From questions around sustainability, to infrastructure challenges, the country still has plenty to do, even as the tourists continue to arrive.

Be our guest

It’s hard to overstate the importance of tourism to the Greek economy. Especially since the 2009 debt crisis, which six years later saw Athens default on its International Monetary Fund obligations, the country has heavily relied on visitors. Beyond those headline statistics around foreign arrivals, that’s similarly clear in terms of domestic employment. Already, over a million Greeks, or around a tenth of the population, work in hospitality, a proportion expected to jump yet further by the end of the decade. That’s shadowed by the frantic activity on the part of operators. Compared with 2005, for instance, the number of hotel rooms has increased by 23.7% to 443,835. Individual brands, for their part, have experienced particular growth. Hilton, for example, recently unveiled two new Greek openings, whereas Radisson opened three sites there in 2022, with another four to come.

With all this in mind, it feels hard to disagree with Vassilis Themelidis, the regional director South and East Europe at Wyndham, when he says that Greek hospitality is at a “very mature” level. “It is very much institutionalised and is actually now the main driver of Greek GDP.” If you know much about Greece as a country, this enthusiasm isn’t hard to understand. Quite apart from iconic beach spots like Santorini (and countless others: Greece has roughly 6,000 islands and nearly 9,000 miles of coastline). As Stefan Merkenhof of GBR Consulting in Athens points out, “cultural and religious tourism” are doughty staples of Greek life, a claim that’s impossible to refute when you recall the Acropolis, or indeed the monasteries at Meteora.

Not that Greek hospitality can simply be understood as a binary of culture vultures and beach loungers. For one thing, gastronomy is an increasingly popular reason to travel, with 26 Greek foods and drinks enjoying protected status under national or EU law. Agritourism, for its part, is another rising star, with visitors basking in Peloponnesian vineyards and mountain valleys rich with mushrooms. But perhaps even more striking than this is where the building is happening. For, if Athens and the islands once got all the attention, other places are now enjoying their place in the sun. Consider Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city with its museums and nightlife, which has recently welcomed over a dozen new properties. Or Halkidiki, a coastal region further north that boasts a significant international presence. Together with the rise of underexplored islands like Paros or Koufonisia, it’s no wonder Merkenhof emphasises that Greece has a lot more to offer than just “sun and beach tourism”.

A Hell(as) of a time

In many ways, the Dolce Attica Riviera typifies this fresh approach to Greek hospitality. A sleek modern building, all sharp lines and white-washed walls, it doesn’t look so different from a Xenia. But more than mere appearances, this Wyndham property really feels special because of its location. Situated an hour south of Athens, on the hilly Aegean coastline, this forested corner of Attica has traditionally been ignored by the hospitality sector. And as Themelidis emphasises, that’s entirely the point. “For Wyndham, we are focusing a lot into the secondary destinations,” he says. “We strongly believe that branding with Wyndham is going to help a lot. They are beautiful destinations and they have a lot to offer.”

Considering the anecdotal evidence – notably the excellent online reviews – Themelidis may be on to something. It seems clear that other operators are moving in a similar direction, venturing forth into the Greek hinterland. The so-called Costa Navarino, on the far side of the Peleponnese from Athens, is one area of interest, with Mandarin Oriental and Marriott just two of the international brands putting down roots there. In 2022, Marriott also opened an Autograph property in Thessaloniki, while the port city of Alexandroupoli, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, has also received interest from foreign investors.

Not that operators are simply interested in the location of new properties. On the contrary, new hotels are equally keen to envelop guests in luxury. Once again, the Attica Riviera is a case in point, with its pool and tennis courts and gaggle of restaurants and bars. Other properties are also indulgent. At the Autograph in Thessaloniki the decor is inspired by the Byzantine artistic tradition; the walls are decorated with work by local artisans. For Merkenhof, at any rate, none of this should be surprising. “Of course,” he emphasises, “these brands offer large sales networks, know-how, education and standardisation.”

Bearing gifts

With outsiders having a lot to offer Greek hospitality, their success also begs the question: what about domestic investors? For Merkenhof, the answer has much to do with a lack of funding, even if firms like Ikos Resorts, a resort brand with five Greek properties, do offer a bright spark. And if the issue of investment hints at Greece’s dire economic record, with Merkenhof describing how many ‘mom and pop’ hotels didn’t survive the turmoil of recent years, you could say something similar about the national government too. As a recent, fatal train crash near Larissa implies, years of underinvestment has left Greek infrastructure in trouble. With investment plans chronically low, it’s easy to see how Greek hospitality could eventually stumble, even if Themelidis stresses that funds are “already allocated” to ensure that progress continues.

Then there’s the challenge of sustainability. For if Greece is undoubtedly a tourism success story, the experience of islands like Mykonos, overwhelmed by ugly developments and bad behaviour from visitors, hints at the dangers facing newer hotspots. “The Greek natural environment and the authenticity of the Greek tourism product must be protected – also to remain competitive,” is how Merkenhof bluntly puts it. “We need to learn about the mistakes of other international destinations and stop the risk of overdevelopment and overcrowding at an early stage.” There are signs this is happening, with the Athens government increasingly encouraging guests to venture beyond their comfort zones, meet local people and eat local food. A worthy sentiment – and one Aris Konstantinidis would surely agree with.