03 Jun “Greece’s underlying investment story remains intact, in spite of the coronavirus crisis.”
Interview with Georgios Filiopoulos, CEO of Enterprise Greece, the country’s investment and export promotion agency
BF: The impact of coronavirus at global level has been like no other in recent times. During this challenging period, Greece rose to the occasion and has received global praise for its handling of the pandemic, especially considering how hard some of its neighbours in Southern Europe were affected. In your opinion, what key factors combined to enable Greece to tackle this crisis so effectively?
GF: First of all, the government acted very quickly. Experts were consulted and measures imposed before even one death from Covid-19 had been registered in Greece. This allowed the country to stay one step ahead of the pandemic, greatly limit the number of cases and, by extension, also keep the number of fatalities to a minimum.
Second, the state made effective use of technology to manage the crisis. A highly efficient SMS system was deployed to manage rules on local travel but still allow the public to cover basic needs and services, like visits to the doctor or to the supermarket. At the same time, the government launched a central e-government platform to provide its services online. The new platform, for example, made it possible for 250,000 prescriptions to be given by SMS during the first month of the lockdown. That spared many elderly or people with pre-existing conditions from having to visit a doctor to obtain their prescriptions. So, it directly contributed to stemming the spread of the virus.
It’s worth noting that the expansion of e-government services was part of the current government’s programme from the start of its administration – the pandemic served as a catalyst for bringing forward implementation. In any event, the adoption of online public services will be of lasting benefit for Greece far beyond the current crisis.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the information provided to the public was timely, credible and clear. This ensured a high level of support for the public health measures and this support sends a strong message that the country is committed to effective and transparent governance. This will have wider benefits, internally and externally, as the country goes forward.
Greece is now in the process of lifting its quarantine measures and so far this is going well. The number of new Covid-19 cases remains low, as economic activity bounces back.
BF: What was looking like a fantastic start to the new decade for Greece, quickly became an extremely volatile and high-risk situation. With the healthcare crisis under control, the focus is now on rebooting the Greek economy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is forecasting a 10% fall in GDP this year as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but a strong recovery in 2021 with 5.1% growth. What are your views on the severity of the impact on Greece’s economy and what will be the key contributors to bouncing back next year?
GF: There is no doubt that the pandemic will have serious economic consequences and not just for Greece. This is affecting countries around the world and, in a globalised economy, that means it impacts everyone.
Because Greece was quick to react, we may also be able to soften the economic impact in the short-to-medium term and reboot our economy faster than some other economies around us. We hope that the contraction will not be as severe as the IMF predicts and that there will be a sharp rebound soon. The EU recovery fund will also contribute significantly towards a speedy economic recovery.
Let’s not forget that Greece enjoys a head start in a few areas. For one, international recognition of Greek efforts to contain the virus reinforces the message that Greece is a safe country with an effective government. The management of the crisis has also showcased some of Greece’s assets: a sophisticated life sciences sector, a highly educated work force, a well-developed tech sector, and a government focused on transparency and business-oriented solutions. Moreover, Greek enterprises have kept providing, without interruptions, products and services to their clients abroad, proving once again that they are reliable partners even during the most difficult times of the pandemic.
The digital leap forward spurred by the Covid-19 crisis will have far-reaching positive consequences in terms of productivity and competitiveness for Greek businesses. The Greek government is supporting the digital transformation of the country through special programs to upgrade IT skills in the private sector. At the same time, the quarantine measures have given a boost to e-commerce and, going forward, I believe we will see a strengthening of online commerce and marketing by Greek businesses, including exporters.
BF: Tourism, Greece’s champion sector, is also considered to be one of the most affected by the virus – hence Greece’s moves to reopen and reactivate the sector in a controlled and responsible way to ensure the summer season is not lost. Tell us a bit about the trickle-down effect of tourism for the economy and how will investments related to tourism will be affected?
GF: The short-term impact on the tourism sector is bound to be severe. Greece has set successive records in visitor numbers for several years and we will, obviously, have fewer visitors this year.
However, I do not see this temporary drop affecting major investments. For example, the redevelopment of the old Athens airport at Hellinikon is moving forward and will transform the Athens Riviera. Other tourism-related investment projects, like the Kilada Hills golf resort in the Peloponnese, the Skorpios island project in the Ionian and the Elounda Hills project in Crete, are all moving forward as well.
The Greek tourism sector has a proven track record and offers great opportunities for investors. The Ministry of Tourism is focused on promoting 365-day tourism, upgrading infrastructure and improving tourism products, both in terms of new thematic activities and new destinations. During the lockdown, the ministry launched the website www.greecefromhome.com and formed a partnership with Marketing Greece to improve the digital promotion of the country’s tourism product.
In short, investors have a range of attractive assets available, a government committed to assisting investors and promoting Greek tourism and, of course, the obvious advantages of climate, geography, cultural heritage and cuisine. We expect Greek tourism to come back better and stronger in a fairly short space of time.
BF: Thanks to its smart handling of the crisis, Greece has somewhat of a head start in reopening its economy and has boosted its reputation as a safe destination for visitors and for investors. Will the gains in Greece’s reputation translate into new investments coming into the country?
GF: Greece’s underlying investment story remains intact, in spite of the coronavirus crisis. Market sources suggest that there is strong international investor interest in our privatisations, as well as many of the infrastructure projects Greece has planned for the months ahead.
So far, major investors, for example COSCO, are going forward with planned investments. Serious investors look at the long term, and the long-term prospects for Greece have not changed. If anything, this crisis has brought some of the country’s assets to the forefront of public awareness. We expect to see greater interest in the Greek life sciences and tech sectors, for example, in the future.
Sectors ranging from agrofood to manufacturing, property, energy, tourism and logistics remain attractive to international investors. And following 10 years of crisis, asset prices in Greece remain undervalued as the country is still rebuilding its economy.
BF: The Greek government has also been applauded for leveraging the coronavirus crisis to push digitisation, particularly in areas like e-government and e-health. Have there been any new initiatives specifically applicable to Enterprise Greece in the digital realm?
GF: We have launched several digital initiatives to respond to this extraordinary situation. For one, we have been conducting a special online information campaign to inform businesses about support measures available. And we have also rolled out a “Support Greek Exports” campaign specifically aimed at supporting the sectors, products and services most affected.
With trade fairs cancelled or postponed, we have produced new digital promotional materials – for example, online flipbooks to showcase the high-quality export products of Greece. We have been particularly focusing on Greece’s fine food and beverage products and also some of the country’s world-class consumer and industrial products and services, like natural cosmetics or maritime equipment.
The challenges for exporters are unique, including constraints on foreign travel and, in some product categories – like medical equipment or certain commodity agricultural products – government export restrictions. To keep Greek exporters up-to-date on those developments, Enterprise Greece has launched a special newsfeed and interactive map to disseminate information regarding any restrictions imposed in countries of interest.
As an organisation, Enterprise Greece is in the process of fully digitising its operations and many of the services offered to our exporters and investors.
BF: It is still uncertain how long the UK will impose a 14-day quarantine for people entering that country, which will of course affect outbound tourism. However, when it comes to investment, including in investments in holiday homes, how do you assess the potential from the UK today and in the coming year?
GF: I see the potential as being significant. The attractions of having a holiday or retirement home in Greece are plentiful: the climate, the excellent quality of life, the lovely beaches and the great food culture, to name a few.
In light of Brexit, Greece also has a generous Golden Visa Programme. This offers UK citizens the opportunity to acquire an EU residency in a safe country with a demonstrated ability to protect public health and provide quality health care.
Additionally, Greece has some significant advantages for a range of British businesses post-Brexit. Greece has an enviable geo-strategic position at the crossroads of three continents and within the eurozone. As a result, in combination with attractive asset prices, the largest container port in the Mediterranean and excellent human resources, Greece is well on its way to becoming a major logistics, distribution and services hub.
A new Greece is emerging and we welcome you to be a part of the new Greece. We may not be able to welcome our British friends to Greece just yet, but very soon we hope to be sitting down at the same table again, be it a conference table or one laid with a Greek feast.