As mayor of Athens, site of the 2004 games, she knows better than anyone what the Olympics means to a host city.
She also knows a little something about Olympic surprises. When Athens won the bid, there were questions about how the famously non-time-conscious Greeks would manage to get everything done on time. But yet they did.
“I believe the world was pleasantly surprised by what they saw and experienced here in Athens,” the mayor says proudly. “We hosted wonderful Olympics in a safe environment extending, in the meantime, the hospitality that Greeks are renowned for.”
It did not always look like it was going to turn out that way. “We had our fair share of anxiety over the time of completion of certain venues,” she acknowledges. “But one must always take into consideration that Athens is a 3000-year-old city. And in a city this old, making changes requires well thought-out planning and research so as not to pose a threat to its heritage.”
For months ahead of the Games, Athens looked a mess – “a massive construction site”, as Ms Bakoyannis describes it – but it was all to a good end. As the smallest country ever to organise the modern Olympic Games, Greece was under a considerable amount of pressure to get it right and prove the doubters wrong. “We had to see to it that many things were done,” the mayor says. And they were.
Playing host to the concurrent Paralympic Games presented added challenges. “Try making a city this old accessible to people with disabilities,” Ms Bakoyannis says. But, somehow, it was done. For the first time in the city’s history, sidewalks now have non-skid tiles, 65km of special grooved walkways for the visually impaired and more than 1100 wheelchair access ramps, facilitating the movement of wheelchair users as well as the visually or hearing impaired.
Put all this together, she says, and what you have is a friendlier and more welcoming city – an ancient city made new again.
“The Greek capital has changed drastically and this is primarily thanks to the Athenians, who have been patient enough to see and work towards this change,” Ms Bakoyannis says. “Before the Olympics, we set a goal to transform Athens, both in terms of functionality and image. And we’ve really come a long way. We’ve upgraded infrastructure, brought colour back, made it cleaner and greener, created more parkland, but most importantly, provided a better quality of life for our citizens.”
Visitors to Athens today can expect to experience a totally different city to that of a few years ago. “Athens is today a modern metropolis at the crossroads of eras and cultures,” says Ms Bakoyannis. “It is a modern European capital ready to welcome and accommodate visitors with the best in terms of services rendered. And, at the same time, it retains the simplistic beauty that made Greece so popular in the 1960s.”
There are now 200 open-air cinemas, theatres and concert venues in the city. Complementing the stunning venues of the past – such as the Roman-built Herod Atticus at the foot of the Acropolis – are some impressive newer models. The multi-purpose Megaron Mousikis, for example, is one of the largest concert halls in Europe. And the Olympic Stadium, whose roof was designed by Santiago Calatrava, stands as a symbol of modern Athens.
The city’s pride and joy is the Archeological Park, a 10-mile pedestrian walkway that links Athens’ major ancient sites. These sites date back to the 5th century BC (the Golden Age of Athens) through to the 14th century AD (Byzantine era) and the Neoclassical period of the 18th and 19th centuries. “The Archaeological Park is really a ‘living museum’, one that spotlights ideas and cultures that have become part of the world’s cultural heritage,” Ms Bakoyannis says.
Such sites bring droves of tourists to the city each year. The happy face that Athens presented to the world during the Olympics can only enhance its appeal as a tourist destination, and the government is ready to capitalise on its successful showing in 2004.
The mayor believes this is best accomplished through the public and private sectors working together. With this in mind, the City of Athens, in co-operation with the private sector, has set up the Athens Tourism and Economic Development Agency, which aims to raise the capital’s profile, boost Athens’ competitiveness as a year-round tourist destination, promote foreign investment and encourage sustainable tourism development.
This non-profit agency is comprised of the City of Athens, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Hellenic Hoteliers Chamber, the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises, the Hellenic Association of Tourist and Travel Agencies, and the Hellenic Retailers Association. Each of these entities works to promote Athens on a different level.
“I firmly believe that supporting and promoting Athens’ tourism industry – and offering alternative forms of tourism – is vital as the sector has the potential to stimulate the city’s wider economic development,” Ms Bakoyannis says. “Our motto? Value for money. Combine this with government strategies for the promotion of Greece, and you have a new and highly competitive tourism product on the international market.”
The tourism sector presents the most obvious opportunities for investment but investors of various sorts have taken notice of the new highways and ring-roads, the reduced pollution levels, the increased quality of goods and services, the plethora of accommodation choices and a local workforce now armed with the know-how and skills that go with successfully hosting the largest event in the world.
Bolstered by pulling off the Olympics despite the concerns over delays and doubts about its readiness, Athens wants to host more large-scale international events, exhibitions and conferences. The government is looking into ways of putting Olympic properties to good use so it is a logical fit.
The shifting of Europe’s boundary, and therefore its nexus, eastward puts Athens in a stronger position to make a play for multinationals’ regional headquarters. And, conveniently, the city can offer access to the markets opening up around it in the Black Sea region. “Greece is a strong European nation in the centre of this developing area as more and more emerging countries strive to join an ever-expanding EU,” the mayor says.
With Athens’ Olympic moment over and attention now shifting to Beijing, host city for 2008, Ms Bakoyannis presses on with the less glamorous business of running a sprawling capital city. Having fulfilled the commitment to complete large-scale infrastructure projects ahead of the Games, the local government can now focus more closely on day-to-day issues.
“A mayor’s job is never done, especially when there are people who believe in you,” she says. “My priority is to make Athens a better place to live and to make life for Athenians simpler. This can only be done through direct contact with the public and through hard work.”
Even after its Olympic victory, Athens cannot afford to rest on its laurels, and more work remains to be done. “The Olympics,” the mayor says, “were only the beginning.”