An interview with Thessaloniki mayor Yiannis Boutaris. By Angeliki Spanou
Thessaloniki was quite unknown to the Chinese market. However, slowly but steadily, the Municipality has been taking steps to make it visible on the Chinese investment map. These include, among other things, the participation in exhibitions and visits, the active participation of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh) in programs, as well as the encouragement to turn the area around Aesopos street into a veritable Chinatown.
You have invested in an outward-looking orientation for Thessaloniki. Does this opening concern China as well? In what ways?
For sure, China's market is of great interest. This is an inexhaustible market, to which we look forward. The Chinese, on their part, also seem to be interested in forging relations with our country and our region, since they have included us in the planning for the creation of a wider economic zone, the Western Silk Road or the One Road One Belt initiative, as they call it. This is all very positive and we are trying to make the most of it. At the moment, of course, we are taking small steps, so that when conditions mature we will be ready for more important ones.
Thus, we have been participating since 2013 at the Beijing-based World Tourism Cities Federation. This includes taking part in exhibitions, thematic panel discussions and working meetings with representatives of other tourism cities, as well as organizations and businesses in the tourism industry from around the world.
On the other hand, we maintain a good relationship with the Chinese community of Thessaloniki and we have encouraged it to turn the area around Aisopos St. into a veritable Chinatown, opening up restaurants and shops to promote Chinese culture. With prompting on our part, they have set up a tourist agency, which clearly works towards boosting tourist flows from China to Thessaloniki.
At the same time, we are using the network of twin cities, including the Chinese city of Tianjin, a delegation of which visited our city, while we visited Tianjin in 2015.
What is your outlook on tourism from China to Thessaloniki?
China tourism interest in Greece in general is real, but the figures are very small both in absolute numbers and in proportion to the size of the Chinese market. The same applies to our region. Nevertheless, the Greece-China Year of Cultural Exchanges and Cooperation of Creative Industries, with China invited as a guest of honor to the 82nd Thessaloniki International Fair in September, as well as the publicity around the Chinese New Year celebrations, organized by the Chinese Association of Thessaloniki last year and this year with the support of the Municipality of Thessaloniki are all actions that do help strengthen relations and thus, attract visitors from China. I was happy to hear that Chinese investors expressed their strong interest for the above mentioned project connecting the port of Thessaloniki with river Danube.
Is there, to your knowledge, any Chinese investment interest?
This is sought-after for both Thessaloniki and the whole country. COSCO's investment has already shown what can be done with a serious case of privatization. Although there are serious entrepreneurs who inquire about Thessaloniki, we have not yet something more specific. We would like to see the arrival of organizations and companies - such as FOSUN, which is investing in Elliniko - in Thessaloniki, especially in sectors such as city infrastructure, tourism, transit trade and innovation.
What is your strategy for upgrading relations with China?
For one thing, we are interested in increasing connectivity with China. The launch of an Athens-Beijing direct flight, cooperation with Turkish Airlines on a double Istanbul - Thessaloniki daily flight and a possible connection to the Arabian Peninsula through Qatar Airways create conditions that allow us to discuss the perspective of establishing direct contacts and relations.
Next, we have to further develop what we have already been discussing (which we did in a more organized fashion during the 2016 Philoxenia Fair) with cities like Belgrade, Plovdiv – which will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 – and even Ohrid in order to showcase the whole of our region as a destination for Chinese tourists, so they can come from distant China and be able to visit 3-4 cities on a 10-15 day trip.
At the same time, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki has been selected, as one of 26 European scientific institutions, to study and develop the potential of the Chinese One Road One Belt project. This can also help place the city of Thessaloniki at the centre of Chinese investments.
Finally, positive developments concerning the port of Thessaloniki as well as the prospect of linking the gulf of Thermaikos with the Danube river via Axios – Morava rivers, as discussed at a meeting between the Greek Prime Minister and his Serbian counterpart, in conjunction with further projects to improve accessibility, energy and general development can turn Thessaloniki into a major hub for China's entry into Southeastern Europe.
Is Thessaloniki known in China?
As noted already, our city was quite unknown in the Chinese market. By participating in the World Tourism Cities Federation, based in Beijing, we have been trying to make our city known, recognizable and more visible in the Chinese market. I believe we will succeed, we are on track, and our efforts in this direction are firm and ongoing. However, they should be complemented by other initiatives on a national scale, such as those I have already mentioned.
What does China mean to you personally? Are you interested in its culture and history?
Personally for me, China is now a country where my youngest son has created a vineyard, trying to produce wine according to the standards and methods and using the Greek varieties of “Kir-Yannis” in the Chinese environment. It is a very interesting country, rich in ancient and modern culture, with a long history, and with a newly acquired interest in winemaking and quality wine. A very interesting combination. Wine, then, may help bring the two cultures, the two peoples, closer together, even though the Chinese have no tradition of producing and consuming wine.