Greece is trying to drag itself out of debt, while at the same time imposing an austerity program that is limiting growth. One of the country’s best hopes for overcoming this paradox is the tourism industry, which employs about one-fifth of the Greek workforce and accounts for up to 18 percent of gross domestic product.
But media coverage of the Greek economic meltdown and the sometimes violent anti-austerity protests are threatening to keep tourists away. In yet another blow last week, Moody’s Investors Service slashed the country’s credit rating to junk status.
Nikolaos Kelaiditis runs a small travel agency in central Athens. A faded old poster of Mykonos, a popular island of whitewashed houses, hangs on his wall.
On a recent weekend afternoon, his office is empty until a couple of young Australians wander in looking for a ferry schedule.
“Enjoy your time in Greece, your holiday,” he tells them. “Explore your senses.”
Numbers Down After Demonstrations
“Explore your senses” is the slogan from the glory days of 2007, when Greece spent 40 million euros (nearly $49 million) on a tourism campaign. Three years later, the country is broke. It owes more than 300 billion euros and narrowly avoided defaulting on its debt last month when the International Monetary Fund and the European Union gave the country 110 billion euros in loans.
Kelaiditis says his own business has declined at least 10 percent this year. And some estimates from Greek hotel and hospitality organizations say hotel reservations are down as much as 30 percent nationwide.
Some parts of the country – such as Crete and Rhodes – have been hit especially hard.
In the 24 hours after three people were killed in a May 5 demonstration in central Athens, there were nearly 6,000 cancellations at hotels in the city.
Kelaiditis’ clients called him, worried about the violent scenes they saw on TV. “The reality is not exactly like that,” he says.
But in the glossy world of travel, perception is reality.
In Greece, there have been scenes of violence, protesters blocking cruise ships and travelers stranded at the airport.
Susan Neal of Clearwater, Fla., says she considered canceling her cruise in Greece after seeing TV news reports about the riots and the deaths.
“We just decided to go ahead and give it a shot, and it’s all worked out great,” she says.
Any tourism money lost right now hurts Greece at a crucial time, says Jens Bastian, a German economist who has lived in Greece for 13 years. He is a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.
“Tourism is the one sector where Greece can regain, most easily, most quickly, competitiveness. You don’t do that by preventing people from coming to Athens or visiting the country and sending out a message that you’re not welcome,” Bastian says.
Promoting ‘Business As Usual’ To Germany, Beyond
German politicians are not popular in Greece. Greeks see them as the instigators of austerity measures that will mean years of recession ahead. The German media has also played up the rift between the two countries.
And that seems to be reflected in the number of Germans avoiding holidays here.
Germans usually make up about 15 percent of visitors to Greece. But the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises estimates that 300,000 of them – or about 12 percent of the Germans who come to Greece annually – will stay away this year. About 16 million travelers visit Greece each year.
So Greece’s tourism ministry is trying to restore the country’s image in Germany and beyond.
The ministry is promoting Greece with a video that shows whitewashed houses, swimmers in a blue sea, and familiar scenes of Greek dancing and ancient ruins.
These scenes are supposed to remind tourists that Greece hasn’t changed, says Giorgos Alimonos of the Greek National Tourism Organization.
“We don’t see tourists as clients. We [treat them as if we are] welcoming people into our family. So I think that beside what happened – which was very limited and very isolated – for Greece, tourism is business as usual,” Alimonos says.
Some Tourists Undeterred
If Alimonos wants a German couple for the next Greek tourism video, he might try Gerd and Rita Ammereller, who recently visited the popular new Acropolis Museum in Athens.
The Ammerellers are social workers from the city of Bochum. They have visited Greece every May since the 1970s. Some friends tried to talk them out of coming to Greece this year, but Gerd Ammereller says he loves the family-run hotel on the island of Paros where they stay each year.
“It’s a little bit like coming home. And they are so friendly and treat us so kindly, and it was a special Greek family atmosphere, and that’s what we love,” he says.
After the Ammerellers leave the museum, they pass a young busker from Crete named Yiannis Kapetanakis, who is playing a lyra.
“These days, a foreigner sees a crazed Greek, caught up in madness. He should be seeing a happy Greek who is smiling – but genuinely smiling,” Kapetanakis says.
“In the old days, we knew how to take care of the people who visited us through a genuine and warm hospitality that defined Greeks,” he says. “In the old days, we were very good at taking care of ourselves, too.”