Greece banks on tourism as crisis stings
Amid street violence, civil service strikes and the economic crisis, Greece is having trouble soliciting the thousands of tourists its economy usually depends on.In the grip of a burgeoning economic crisis that has soured global travel forecasts, the last thing tourist-hungry Greece needed was a blockade of the Acropolis, its main archaeological attraction.
But amid an early slump in bookings that alarms the country's key industry, thousands of visitors have been turned away at the gates of this city's ancient citadel because of a protest by culture ministry staff.
Thousands have been prevented in the last fortnight from accessing the iconic temple, which draws crowds over 100,000 people each month, in a protest against layoffs that is set to continue in mid-March.
The timing is unfortunate for Greece, which in December went through weeks of street violence after the fatal shooting of a teenager by police.
At the time, tourism leaders noted that a locked-up Acropolis was more damaging that the mainly anti-police unrest in which no tourists were harmed.
Today, the damage from December is hard to assess but the figures coming in are not pleasant, operators say.
"The violence, along with exaggerated media reports, dented Greece's image," says George Drakopoulos, general manager of the association of Greek tourism enterprises (Sete). "But the measure of harm is hard to gauge right now as we lack arrival results over the entire year to compare to last year's.”
"Right now we have 30 percent fewer bookings from Britain and 20 percent from Germany compared to this time last year," says Argyro Fili, head of the Hellenic association of travel and tourist agencies (Hatta).
No precise figures are currently available for the US market but the fall there is believed to be similar, she added.
"The game has switched to late booking,” Fili said. “Everybody is waiting to see what happens. We expect to have a clear picture by early April."
In another discouraging sign, the Greek statistics service Esye last month reported a 3.2-percent drop in arrivals in the first nine months of 2008 compared to the equivalent period in 2007.
The agency also reported a 3.9-percent fall in hotel and camping arrivals.
A study released in February by EFG Eurobank, Greece's third-largest lender, warned that the country's tourist arrivals were threatened with the largest drop in nearly 20 years by the global pinch on income.
Recession and economic slowdown in OECD countries -- which include the main Western economies -- traditionally either coincide or are followed by "tangible" falls in tourist arrivals in Greece, the study said.
"The fall in travel expenditure by foreigners in our country could be worth at least two billion euros (2.5 billion dollars) in 2009 if negative forecasts prove right," the study said.
An uphill battle
In a bid to tackle the problem head-on, Greek Tourism Minister Costas Markopoulos last week said he would tour six American states to promote the country in coming weeks.
Markopoulos is Greece's third tourism minister in two years and the fourth since 2004, a sign that the government ought to take the sector's long-term planning a bit more seriously, operators said.
The country's biggest source of income after shipping, tourism makes up 18 percent of the Greek economy and employs over 850,000 people directly or indirectly according to the tourism ministry.
Tourism proceeds in 2007 earned the Greek economy over 11.4 billion euros according to the Bank of Greece.
Over 17 million people visited the country during that year, according to the Greek statistics service, a total that includes many immigrants from neighbouring Albania and Bulgaria.