‘Parthenon of shipwrecks’ helps reboot tourism in Greece


The global tourism industry is trying to bounce back following more than two years of coronavirus restrictions, and many countries are still struggling to regain foreign tourists.

In Greece, officials on the island of Alonissos are boosting the recovery by offering unprecedented access to an otherworldly relic, submerged underwater for thousands of years.

Peristera, named after a nearby islet, is a shipwreck dating back somewhere between 425 and 420 B.C. The commercial vessel lies about 25 meters underwater in the largest marine-protected area in Europe.

It was a very large boat, with an equally impressive cargo: 3,000 two-handled wine jars. Researchers believe it sank in stormy weather, or because of a fire on deck.

Recreational divers can now explore the ancient Peristera shipwreck off the Greek island of Alonissos.

The shipwreck was discovered back in 1985, and has been accessible only to archeologists. But in 2020, officials designated the site as Greece’s first archeological museum — and holidaymakers familiar with snorkeling and scuba diving are coming in their droves.

The information center in Alonissos has a wealth of Peristera shipwreck exhibits, including photos, videos, replica artifacts and interactive platforms.

“The underwater museum of Alonissos is one of a kind… a major development because diving tourism can be a flagship project in the country,” says Greece’s Deputy Tourism Minister Sofia Zacharaki.

The site was for years kept off limits due to fears of looting. But museum official Efi Vamvaka says they now have the technology to monitor the antiquities around the clock. “There are five underwater cameras and one land camera, and we can see the whole area. The video from a live feed is always available to us,” she says.

Five underwater cameras streaming real-time video monitor the Peristera shipwreck.

Divers ecstatic

Patitiri, Alonissos’ main port, is the departure point for boats visiting the Peristera shipwreck.

And now that authorities in other countries are reopening their borders, the museum is proving a hit with travel-starved recreational divers. “It was really, really good,” says a man from Britain. “The scale is huge. I came to Alonissos because I heard about this.”

Another woman from France said, “This place is pretty famous, it’s well known as a big wreck, so I wanted to come. It was amazing, really beautiful. Everything’s intact and you get time to see everything.”

Beaches and theme parks are back in business across the globe. But Greece’s latest attraction proves nothing pulls in tourists like the wonders of the ancient world.

A couple from Austria (left) and Britain (right) found the Peristera shipwreck fascinating.

“It was really fascinating to see this ancient dive site,” said a couple from Austria and Britain. “We are very lucky to be able to see something like this underwater, something that’s 2,500 years old … to spend time, and let your imagination go wild.”

Holidaymakers who prefer to keep their sightseeing above the water line haven’t been left high and dry. A nearby facility has an information center, replete with the cutting-edge technology for “virtual dives”.

Tourists can enjoy virtual dives of the Peristera shipwreck at the information center in Alonissos.

Greek officials optimistic

The coronavirus brought Greece’s tourism industry to its knees, and this summer’s recovery has been akin to a miracle. In the pre-pandemic days of 2019, a record 34 million visitors generated about 18 billion euros in revenue for the country, but this year is on course to be even better.

Authorities couldn’t be happier. “Tourism is our main industry here, it’s 25% of GDP, so you can understand how important it is for us,” says Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias. “The impact of the pandemic was huge. We had to shut down the industry for a significant period, but this year is looking very, very good.”

Alonissos Mayor Petros Vafinis hopes the underwater museum will attract divers from around the world.

And on the island of Alonissos, Mayor Petros Vafinis shares Kikilias’ optimistic outlook. He hopes the shipwreck can inspire other parts of Greece to make better use of their cultural riches. “The first year of the pandemic was really difficult. The underwater museum is very important for Alonissos and for Greece. We hope it brings divers here from all around the world.”



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