Greece hopes tourism will rebound amid lingering crisis


Greek officials and businesses are trying to lure back reluctant visitors, amid worries the 2012 season is lost.

By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 04/07/12


Tourists watch the changing of the guard ceremony on Syntagma Square in Athens. [Reuters]

The changing of the guard in front of parliament and the tomb of the unknown soldiers in Athens' Syntagma Square is a favourite photo opportunity for tourists even in the mid-day summer heat.

But only a handful have been there recently. Xuang Zhang, 24, a student who attended the spectacle with two friends from China, was worried about finding protesters battling police, an image that for many visitors has replaced that of Acropolis.

"When we foreigners see people being tear-gassed and beaten, it turns us off," Zhang told SETimes.

That kind of wariness, along with a continuing economic decline, has been driving down Greece's biggest revenue engine.

Before the new coalition government took office last month, hotel and resort bookings declined between 30% and 50%, and a spate of hotels closed.

Fears that Greece would drop out of the eurozone precluded many would-be visitors worried the euro will be replaced by the drachma. The new government reported tourist receipts have dropped by more than 12%, leading to a nearly 10% decline in arrivals or a loss of 100m euros.

Post elections, Greek officials are counting on tourists to save the season to refill state coffers and revive the industry that employs a fifth of the country's workers.

"The reservations are returning by the day. As the elections approached, there were none," Andreas Metaxas, vice president of the Hellenic Hotels Federation, told SETimes.

Hoteliers who worried of a 30% falloff now expect a 10% drop, Metaxas added.

Industry officials are counting on German visitors and on a new market -- Russian tourists.

But political wrangling over Germany's role in insisting on austerity for Greece created bitterness, making many Germans reluctant to visit -- numbers have dropped 33%.

Greece can not expect a banner year because it is competing with the 2012 London Olympics and the less expensive North African countries, according to Alexandros Vassilikos, president of the Athens Hotel Association.

"The figures are not good. We are expecting a fall that might not be two-digit compared to last year, which was a record year. It is not a tragedy, but the bad press we saw did not help the bookings," Vassilikos told SETimes.

The Institute of Tourism Research and Forecasts reported a 32% decline in advance bookings for the June-September period, and estimated hotel revenues will decline between 870m to 1.1 billion euros -- a fifth of total revenues.

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The twin problems of the continuous EU financial crisis and negative publicity make saving the tourist season a difficult proposition, according to Xenophon Petropoulos, communications manager for the Association of Hellenic Tourism Enterprises.

"There could be a 10-15% reduction in receipts because of drastic price reductions to lure visitors," Petropoulos told SETimes.

"I did not know if we would see demonstrations and figured we would try to get out of it," US visitor Cindy Garza, 53, told SETimes at Athens' Syntagma Square.

First though, Greece wants to get more people like the Garzas into the country.

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