A phil­hel­lene of the mod­ern day

Hil­ton Athens gen­eral man­ager Bart Van De Vinker on Greece’s virtues and short­com­ings

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY MAR­GARITA POURNARA

When we see the word phil­hel­lene, we tend to think of the his­tor­i­cal ver­sion, the By­rons, the Fab­viers and so on, but what of its mod­ern-day coun­ter­part? Per­haps some­one who is aware of Greece’s short­com­ings, but nev­er­the­less puts their faith in its virtues, not in terms of its an­cient grandeur but rather as a coun­try with its own spe­cial place in the world to­day.

The gen­eral man­ager of the Hil­ton Athens Ho­tel, Dutch­man Bart Van De Vinkel, knows Greece like the back of his hand. He first work as­sign­ment in Greece came in 1986. He re­turned in 2006, when the coun­try was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a pe­riod of post-Olympics eu­pho­ria.

The Hil­ton man­ager has re­mained in his po­si­tion through the cri­sis years. His views of the coun­try and its peo­ple are par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est­ing, not be­cause he’s prone to le­niency, but be­cause he is ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing some truly con­struc­tive crit­i­cism.

Van De Vinkel shared his thoughts on the sub­ject of the Greek cap­i­tal’s po­ten­tial to be­come a pow­er­ful tourist des­ti­na­tion in its own right, as op­posed to a brief stopover for trav­el­ers on their way to the pop­u­lar is­lands, as well as Greece’s growth prospects.

“When one talks about Greece it’s im­pos­si­ble to go only as far as the coun­try’s beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral land­scape and not men­tion cer­tain traits which ren­der its res­i­dents rather unique: There is a sense of in­de­pen­dence in ev­ery Greek, the joy of life and the warmth of hu­man re­la­tions. All of these to­gether pro­vide a strong in­cen­tive for any­one to visit your coun­try,” said Van De Vinkel, whose vast ex­pe­ri­ence in­cludes po­si­tions at a num­ber of ho­tels in cities across Europe.

Are his re­marks an at­tempt to bal­ance out the cap­i­tal’s reign­ing chaos? “In Western Euro­pean coun­tries, when the light turns or­ange, driv­ers brake. The op­po­site hap­pens here, they ac­cel­er­ate. You sense a cer­tain kind of in­tol­er­ance to­ward rules. Curb­ing this in­de­pen­dence and al­low­ing it to be­come a step­ping stone to suc­cess for a na­tion which has learnt to think out­side the box is a ma­jor is­sue in­deed,” he said.

The land­mark Athens ho­tel’s gen­eral man­ager un­der­lines that Greece has made huge leaps for­ward since 1986. How would he de­scribe the Greek sit­u­a­tion and psy­che to his com­pa­triot, eu­ro­zone chief and Dutch Fi­nance Min­is­ter Jeroen Di­js­sel­bloem, if he had to?

“Ob­vi­ously there was the is­sue of bad man­age­ment with re­gard to the econ­omy, among oth­ers, which started decades ago. There had to be change – there is no doubt about that. How­ever, the time frame given for the ad­just­ment to the new, de­mand­ing re­quire­ments was ex­cep­tion­ally short. I think it is now ob­vi­ous that in­stead of heal­ing the econ­omy, they went about stran­gling it. I be­lieve that those who de­vel­oped this path did not take into con­sid­er­a­tion the Greek men­tal­ity and the fact that it takes a long time to break with the past.

“On the other hand, I think that not only the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, but the ones be­fore that, which were aware of the size of the prob­lem, did not act swiftly in or­der to im­ple­ment cer­tain nec­es­sary re­forms which would have nur­tured a bet­ter eco­nomic cli­mate on the lo­cal level and trust on the in­ter­na­tional level, so that things would progress based on a cleans­ing plan. In or­der to fight un­em­ploy­ment you have to in­vest. How can we still be talk­ing about whether or not to move on with pri­va­ti­za­tions or the need for a more steady frame­work – le­gal and fis­cal – for for­eign­ers who be­lieve that there are in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in Greece,” said the Dutch­man, who, in turn, had to make small re­forms at the ho­tel in or­der to sur­vive the prob­lems that arose with the cri­sis.

“At a cer­tain point we had to read­just salaries and the num­ber of em­ploy­ees, but we re­main a very tight team and this has con­trib­uted to over­com­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties.”

What about long-suf­fer­ing Athens? What is the city’s fu­ture in terms of tourism? “Athens is on the rise be­cause many is­lands are con­sid­ered too ex­pen­sive. There are at­trac­tive pack­age deals with low-cost flights and many visi­tors come to the city. How­ever, the prob­lem of an un­sta­ble eco­nomic cli­mate re­mains. In the past, travel agent giants would make book­ings and give a cer­tain sum as a down­pay­ment. Now this money is de­posited much later. De­spite it all, though, I’m op­ti­mistic, as I be­lieve that Greece is gifted both in terms of land­scape and peo­ple, a com­bi­na­tion which makes it unique and in­com­pa­ra­ble to cheaper neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. But that does not mean we should not im­prove cer­tain things.”

‘Athens is on the rise be­cause many is­lands are con­sid­ered too ex­pen­sive,’ says Bart Van de Vinkel.

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