Greece’s Ionian Islands look to lead the country into the post-pandemic era

On May 21, Greece celebrated the 156th anniversary its reunification with the Ionian islands, the chain of landmasses in the Adriatic Sea, sandwiched between Greece and Italy. The islands – specifically, Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Ithaca, Paxi, Kythira, and Corfu – were the mythical Homeric home of Odysseus and are now known for showing strong traces of the Venetian, French and British empires – all which occupied and spent significant time on the islands while leaving an indelible mark on their food, architecture, and culture.

Today, tourism dominates the economy of the Ionian Islands. With Greece emerging from its two-month lockdown, and as it prepares for the beginning of the tourism season in mid-June, New Europe sat down with the regional governor of the Ionian Islands, Rodi Kratsa-Tsagaropoulou, to discuss the current situation in both her region and in Greece as a whole, as well as her vision for how the country and the Ionian island group move forward in the midst of a global pandemic and while facing what most experts predict will be a difficult economic situation for the foreseeable future.

NEW EUROPE (NE): Greece is one of the countries that managed to keep its coronavirus infections at a low level compared to other European countries. What was the cooperation between the Ionian Island region and the government, as well as with the local authorities, in order to prevent and face the spread of the pandemic?

RODI KRATSA-TSAGAROPOULOU (RKT): What Greece accomplished is due, for the most part, to good cooperation at all levels of governance, as well as to the awareness of the citizens. It is not a coincidence that the research shows that, as of late, the status of the government and the institutions has increased in the eyes of Greek citizens and of course, so has their trust towards them. Our region reacted promptly and effectively on all levels. Firstly, we protected the employees of our services on all of the islands by providing them with the proper equipment and by setting up a special working schedule. We set up services for psychological support and medical advice to citizens through telemedicine, in cooperation with medical organisations and municipalities in our region. We are also focusing on information campaigns with pamphlets, messages through television, radio and social media.

Our civil protection and public health services were on constant alert, 24 hours a day, to supply emergency help to vulnerable social groups in need and to coordinate their actions with local actors. The positive results of our efforts have given us great satisfaction. We are, of course, continuing our strategy in order to, as the national slogan says, “remain safe.”

NE: The spread of COVID-19 in Greece was a severe blow to the country’s tourism sector and to the national economy. Despite the early measures taken by the government, the number of tourists that are planning to visit Greece this year will decrease significantly. With an eye on the upcoming reopening of the country’s borders in mid-June, which specific measures are the Ionian Islands taking to safely welcome tourists and what is the level of cooperation between the regional government and the local tourist actors?

RKT: Every economy in the world has suffered a downturn. This is especially true for the tourism and transport sectors. In Greece, tourism represents more than 20% of the national GDP and, as such, it becomes easy to understand that the current pandemic will have serious repercussions over the immediate term. In the Ionian Islands, these numbers are much higher due to the fact that we are a fully touristic region. We are eagerly awaiting developments in the conditions for travel and the health tourist protocols. In any case, we are making preparations to welcome tourists as well as putting into effect new parameters for the protection of hotel employees and employees in restaurants, cultural events etc, And, of course, for the protection of tourists.

As for the regional administration and governance, we are preparing to financially support businesses in this endeavour with appropriate training and special equipment. We are living in an unprecedented situation and there is a need to have close cooperation between all of the stakeholders at a central and local level in order to effectively tackle the problems caused by the pandemic.

A young boy jumps as he enjoys fishing during a hot evening at the beach of Rhoda, Corfu, Greece. EPA-EFE//FILIP SINGER

In spite of that, we are optimistic, because the Ionian Islands are a very attractive destination. They are located in a stable geopolitical region between Greece and Italy, they have been largely unaffected by COVID-19 and they have modern and well-equipped hospitals with highly qualified doctors and nursing staff. We can, therefore, offer a safe vacation and wonderful experience for travellers who are interested in visiting our region.

NE: How would you rate the European Union’s response to the pandemic and what measures would you expect to be offered by the EU to support the bloc’s members and the region’s economies?

RKT: As it often happens in a crisis, the European Union was unprepared and was, of course, late in reacting in a coordinated and collective fashion to the pandemic. The EU’s members were unable to find a common ground and offer a compelling response to the threats that each European country’s economy faced. Following this initial period, the institutions – in other words, the European Parliament and the European Commission – proved that they do indeed have the vision and willingness to implement relief measures, both for employees as well as for businesses, and for public health and restarting of the economy.

I believe that Europe will come out of this crisis more united and will certainly learn from this experience and take long-term initiatives in favour of public health and, in parallel, the transformation of the economy and industries in the face of climate change, with a special focus on island regions. It is also time to adopt an integrated policy for tourism, a sector that increasingly concerns more countries and regions within the EU.

NE:  In which way do you think your experience as an MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament has helped you in your current position as governor of the Ionian Islands Region?

RTK: First of all, I would like to mention that it is a privilege for me to be able to serve the region where I was born and grew up by applying the experiences I gained at the European level. Integrating “Europe” into local-level policies that are close to the daily lives of the residents of these islands to help maximise the results of European policies and financial support is a big challenge. It is also important to observe, every day, just how the islanders feel about Europe during both good and challenging times, as well as to understand what they expect from the European Union.

It for this reason that I believe my participation in the Committee of Regions of the European Union is very useful. My experience that I brought from Brussels is important mainly because it enables me to work for my region and follow our common European path towards tackling climate change, ensuring the efficiency of the modern waste management system, and taking steps towards the green and blue economy, as well as the digital economy and cross border cooperation.


NE: The region of the Ionian Islands has, throughout the ages, been one of the most key areas in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region. Greece recently celebrated the 156th anniversary of its union with the Ionian Islands. How do you envisage the further cultural, economic, and historical development of the region at a national and international level in the coming years?

RKT: The Ionian Islands have great potential, as you say. Besides their wonderful nature, they have a vast multicultural heritage as a result of their geopolitical importance to the many conquerors of the past – the Venetians, French, Russians, and British. The residents succeeded in preserving their language, their religion and, at the same time, enriching their identity with the culture of the people that coexisted with them. It is all of this that makes the Ionian Islands so unique, open and hospitable. Next year’s celebrations for the 200the anniversary of the Greek War of Independence and the creation of the modern Greek state will give us many opportunities to promote our historic heritage both in Greece and abroad.

We also want to highlight the importance of the Ionian Islands in the modern era, both for Greece as well as for the rest of Europe, in the development of transportation, the creation of energy pipelines like the East-Med, and cooperation in the Mediterranean, and especially in the Adriatic.