Cultural, religious and medical tourism can have great potential in Armenia, Greek Ambassador to Armenia H.E. Mrs. Nafsika Nancy Eva Vraila said in an interview with Armenian News-NEWS.am.
How do you assess the level of Greece – Armenia political relations?
26 years ago, on the 2nd of January 1992, the Prime Minister of Greece Constantinos Mitsotakis conveyed to the President of the Republic of Armenia Levon Ter Petrosyan a letter announcing the decision of the Hellenic Government to recognize the Republic of Armenia as an independent state and to appoint a resident Ambassador. The Greek Embassy in Yerevan has been functioning since 1993 and so has the Armenian Embassy in Athens.
It is no secret to anyone that 26 years of recent relations between our two countries represent only a tiny fraction of a prior historic, centuries old, strong relation of coexistence at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. We have lived side by side in two mighty empires (Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire) and after their fall we have shared similar sufferings and struggles on our way to achieving our respective national independences.
Armenian survivors of the genocide and those fleeing, along with the Greeks of Asia Minor, their ancestral territories ended up in the territory of Greece where they spent shorter or longer periods before they undertook the long journey to America (North and South), Europe etc to form the famous Armenian diaspora. I still happen to meet diaspora Armenians who tell me that their grandparents, who eventually migrated to other countries, always kept the loving memory of the years they passed in Greece and I can assure you that those who chose to remain in Greece form today a very vibrant and active community who love, with the same force, their homeland and their adopted country, Greece, of whom they are citizens.
Today our bilateral political and people to people relations are at a very high level and we are aspiring to developing them even further in other fields like economy, tourism, culture etc.
Greece’s Parliament officially recognized, in 1996, the Armenian Genocide by the Ottomans in 1915 and has also penalized its denial. Our country has supported Armenia’s rapprochement with European institutions and warmly welcomes the recent signature of CEPA between the EU and Armenia. This agreement will open up opportunities for cooperation in a wide range of areas and will also provide more support to Armenia’s democratic and economic reform. The two countries also cooperate fruitfully within the framework of other International Organizations (United Nations, OSCE, Council of Europe, BSEC etc).
An important number of high level bilateral visits have occurred ever since the establishment of relations at Presidential, Ministerial and parliamentarian level. Only in 2017, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and Greece, Mr. Kotzias and Mr. Nalbandian, have met twice (in March and December) and, having characterized the political relations as strategic, have pledged to further enhance all forms of bilateral cooperation.
What prospects do you see in the development of economic relations between our countries? What particular area can you single out?
The economic and commercial relations between Greece and Armenia are far below their potential. Trade volume for 2016 was 11.023.123 Euros, with Greek exports 10.753.093 and imports to Greece from Armenia only 270.030 euro. There are no Armenian investments in Greece and Greek investments in Armenia are very few. Two products, aluminum and aluminum products, tobacco and tobacco products represent the 60% of Greek exports to Armenia. The prospects for further development of our bilateral economic relations can be achieved by, among other initiatives, mutual participation in Exhibitions in both countries, Business Missions, promotion events, synergies between collective actors, like Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Business Associations, Central Government and local Government Institutions. It has been already proposed to hold the 6th Session of Joint Intergovernmental Committee for Economic, Industrial and Technological Cooperation during 2018 in Yerevan and at the same time to organize a Business Forum and Business Mission. Also, the active participation of Armenian entrepreneurs in Exhibitions at Helexpo s.a. in Athens and in Thessaloniki and of Greek Companies in Exhibition Centers in Yerevan and the Free Economic Zones in Armenia can strengthen our bilateral economic and commercial relations. Of course ultimately it is up to individual businesses to decide for themselves but we see still unexplored opportunities for cooperation in many areas like agriculture, pharmaceutical and construction materials, renewable green energy, food products etc.
The already existing comprehensive legal framework about protection of investments, avoidance of double taxation e.t.c. can facilitate investment projects and trade in both countries. One area that can provide great potential for cooperation is tourism.
Tourism is very much developed in Greece. Armenia also prays major attention to the development of tourism. What do you think is this sector perspective in Armenia? Do you share the opinion that tourism sometimes hinders development of other areas?
This is correct. Travel and tourism are important sectors of the Greek economy, with a substantial direct and indirect impact on it. According to the most recent data from the World Travel & Tourism Council, contributions to the Gross National Product (GNP) in 2016 was 13.2 billion Euros (7.5%) and 32,8 billion Euros, (18,6%) respectively. The total GNP of Greece for 2017 was 183 billion Euros. With 11,5% of total employment in the tourist sector and 30 million visitors in 2017, Greek tourism still has not achieved its full potential.
Tourism can contribute to Armenia’s economy as well. By following the example of countries with important tourism sectors, tourism can increase its contribution to the economy, by having a national strategy for tourism, through implementation of appropriate tax and incentives for facilitating investments in new facilities as well as for renovating old ones, effective management, support from the Banking system in the form of loans, are some of the right steps forward. Promotion of Armenia as a tourist destination for Greeks is essential through participation of the tourism sector in Exhibitions such as Philoxenia 2018 organized by Helexpo s.a. in Athens and Thessaloniki. A vehicle for further cooperation by providing opportunities for Armenian students of the tourism sector to participate in training and seminars in Greece can be created through specific agreements between the Ministry of Tourism of Greece and the relevant authorities of Armenia. In the early days of the Armenian Republic Greece helped, through substantial funding the functioning of the Armenian-Greek College of Tourism, Service and Food Industry in Yerevan. It is a type of cooperation which should now develop.
On a bilateral level, we can note a substantial increase of tourists from Armenia to Greece in recent years mainly due to the establishment of year through regular direct flights by Aegean Airlines to Athens and charter flights to Crete, Thessalonica (Chalkidiki), Rhodes, and Corfu during the summer period and also due to interesting tourist packages offered by the agencies. I am happy to note that Greece has become the number one tourist destination for Armenians thus facilitating commercial and people to people contacts
Tourism cannot undermine the development of other sectors of the economy, due to the fact that it can create new jobs and demand for products from other sectors of the economy, namely, agricultural, food and beverages e.t.c. It is not only the hotels that benefit from its development. A lot of sectors can be affected positively. Cultural, Religious and Medical tourism can have great potential in Armenia. Optimum resource allocation to the different sectors of the economy, through financing of the State budget is the right policy for every country.
Greece has been experienced economic difficulties. There were even speculations about withdrawing from the European Union. What is the situation now? Can you say that the crisis is behind or there are still problems to overcome?
The Greek economy has moved away from the –so called, “Grexit” perspective and from a country of economic crisis is already becoming a state of economic recovery. The first signs of solid growth, are more than evident now, with declining unemployment rate from 26,5% in 2014 to 23,5 in 2016, inflation 1% in 2017, increase in the GNP , by 2,1% in 2017.
Yes, we can say that the crisis is behind, as long as we implement fiscal, monetary and structural reform policies that are already in place and achieve the targets set. After nine consecutive years of economic difficulties, austerities and adjustments measures, with the implementation of the appropriate structural reforms, the Greek economy is now on a sustainable corrective track of its main macroeconomic and microeconomic indicators.
How did the economic crisis affect common citizens? Do the protest actions and demonstrations damage the process of solving economic problems or contribute to finding the best solution? Do people in Greece feel positive effects of the economy policy?
The economic crisis had a great impact on the common citizens in Greece, because it meant a great devaluation of their income and living standards, more specifically through a decrease of their daily wages, salaries, and pensions and through substantial taxation. The Greek National Product was 240 billion euro, the average income 28.000 euro per year in 2009 and now it is 183 billion Euros and 19.000 Euros respectively.
Greece is a democratic country and its citizens have the right to demonstrate and express their opinion about the policies implemented. The legal framework and Constitutional rights are fully respected in Greece. Nevertheless, real change in the economy and improvement of the economic situation of every country’s citizens can be achieved through the implementation of the right economic policies, which can lead to economic development to overcome the economic crisis.
Do you think an ambassador has to set a goal when he is taking the office?
When assuming his or her mission in a foreign country an ambassador already has a goal. It coincides with the job description and that is the further improvement of bilateral relations at all levels. With that in mind it is the obligation of the ambassador according also to the specific timing of his/ her tenure and to his/her character to pursue that goal especially in the sectors that still have a potential of improvement.
Do you remember your first impressions of Armenia? Is there anything you miss much being far from Greece?
Yes, it was a very positive impression because after three years of the famous New York Skyline I was welcomed by the majestic Mount Ararat which forms part of Yerevan’s Skyline and I felt that I had come back to a region of ancient history and culture. I was also, from the very first moment, accepted in a very warm way both by the Armenian officials and the people. It was a very pleasant beginning which helped me settle down easily.
No matter how content I have been in my life with all my professional assignments around the world I will always be homesick for my homeland Greece and especially the sea and I shall always yearn for my return there. As it is true for all expatriates whose profession obliges them to live for a long time far from their loved ones what I miss more are my family and friends.
You worked in different countries. Do you think the mentality can change after living in different countries?
Of course, I think that the mentality can change and inevitably does change after living in so many countries. You cannot stay intact from what's going on around you. One realizes that his own country is not the center of the world and trying to understand the others and their culture, way of life and political positions, can only open the mind and enrich the spirit and ultimately facilitates comprehension which is the foundation of all good relations.