Scattered in the calm, sapphire-blue sea off the western coast of mainland Greece are the lush, green and incredibly photogenic Ionian islands, the most famous of which — Corfu, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos, Zante, Lefkada and Paxos — attract over 3.1 million visitors a year to their award-winning beaches.
As well as being captivating, the isles are unique, says Ionian Islands Regional Governor Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou. “They have a rich natural environment and culture that make them different to the rest of Greece. The region’s history covers Venetian, French, Russian and British influences, which gives a special character to its inhabitants, architecture, music, art and food products,” she explains.
Visitor arrivals at the region’s three airports went up 15% in 2018 and cruise numbers are also growing, but Kratsa wants to further open up the diverse wealth of authentic and singular experiences the region could offer by developing more high-quality and sustainable tourism products. As an example, she highlights U.S.-based NCH Capital’s development on Corfu, which will see hotels and villas being built on 7% of a 500-acre site, with the remainder being used to conserve the island’s natural beauty.
“It is important that tourism here is focused on local culture, and respects the region’s characteristics and environment, because the Ionian islands are not only about vacations — they are also a way of life,” she states.
A destination made for cruising
Greece contains over 6,000 islands, each with its own distinct and enticing personality — a cruise offers the most luxurious and relaxing way to immerse yourself in them.
The number of tourists visiting Greece on cruise ships rose 16% in 2019, according to the Hellenic Ports Association. “It’s increasingly popular because Greece has so many wonderful islands and there is no more convenient or adventurous way to experience them,” explains Chris Theophilides, CEO of Celestyal Cruises.
115,000 travelers, 40% of them from the U.S., chose to visit those islands and other locations in the Eastern Mediterranean with this multi-award-winning company. One reason for their choice is that, as the country’s only home-based cruise operator, Celestyal Cruises has unrivaled local knowledge. “Another is our destination-centric philosophy. We operate two mid-sized ships that only accommodate 1,500 guests. This means we can enter ports on smaller, off-the-beaten-track island gems as well as visiting the most popular regional destinations in our itineraries,” Theophilides reveals.
Smaller ships also allow the company to provide highly personalized services. Guests experience an authentic cultural immersion, with food, drink, entertainment and ambience all reflecting Greece’s famed hospitality.
Theophilides believes the cruising sector will continue growing quickly. “As an indication of demand, we now have to reserve port berths two years in advance,” he says. In line with this, Celestyal Cruises is expanding by rolling out new itineraries to introduce even more destinations and by extending its calendar, which runs from March to January. According to the CEO, it aims to be running cruises all-year round within two years and is considering investing in extra ships. “We have also opened international offices and, of course, the first and most important is in the U.S., where we have a team of 12 dedicated to servicing American guests and travel partners,” he says.