It is Greece’s summer ritual: the arrival of the island ferry, funnels billowing, horns blaring, gangplanks screeching as wide-eyed tourists prepare to disembark.
Last week in the wind-swept Cyclades, the isle of Paros was no exception. One by one they came – vessels the size of tenement blocks – disgorging holidaymakers on to an esplanade dotted with little white buildings in scenes of exuberant commotion.
For Andreas Hadjiathanasiou, whose car rental agency has a seafront view of the spectacle, the new arrivals were a welcome sight. The season has barely begun and business has already doubled. “We’ve ordered 60 new vehicles,” said the operations manager who has relocated from Athens for the summer. “It’s early days but tourists are pouring in from all over the place. Forget the crisis! I’d say this is one of our best years yet.”
After six stark years of recession, debt-stricken Greece is back, doing what it has done since the 50s, drawing in holidaymakers from far and wide, only this time at record-breaking rates.
The rebound offers the first ray of light in a nation that to a great degree has been rendered unrecognisable by the corrosive effects of austerity. Like a freak storm, the eurozone crisis has swept over this land, leaving despair and destruction in its wake: almost no household has not felt the effects of wage and pension cuts (slashed by an average 40%), soaring taxes and unemployment that at 26.7% is the highest in the EU and unprecedented in Greece’s post-war history.
In such circumstances only one in four Greeks will be able to go on holiday this summer, according to a poll published by the consumer protection group Inka this week. But in a country where trickle-down economics begins with tourism – one in five of the working population are dependent on the sector – the arrival of foreign visitors has brought relief.
It has also reinforced the official narrative, so often unfelt by those on the ground, that after achieving the biggest fiscal adjustment in global history, things are finally improving for the eurozone’s weakest link. This month the Confederation of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) revised its projections for the second time this year – from 18.5 million to 19 million arrivals (excluding 2.2 million on cruise ships) – nearly twice the Greek population. Airline bookings are up 25%, with island airports reporting a surge in traffic. Revenues in the first four months of the year had expanded by more than a quarter, according to the Bank of Greece.
“We have revised our number upwards to around 19 million arrivals, an all-time record,” SETE’s chairman, Andreas Andreadis, said. “We’ve seen a double-digit growth in bookings from countries such as the US, Britain, Germany, France and Italy.”
Regional turmoil, Greece’s own internal deflation – a process that though savage has produced bargain basement deals – and the introduction of longer opening hours at museums and archaeological sites have helped spur the turnaround. So, too, have receding fears of Greece’s ejection from the eurozone, the nightmare scenario that haunted the twice bailed-out country as it desperately tried to keep bankruptcy at bay.
Not long ago the comeback would have been impossible to imagine.
Tourism was the first sector to be hit when the scale of Athens’ budgetary overflows became apparent in late 2009. As Greeks took to the streets in stunned anger – as much at their nation’s economic meltdown as at the devastating price of international aid needed to avert default – millions of holidays were cancelled overnight.
No place was worst affected than Athens, from where televised images of riots, tear gas and burning buildings were shown around the world.
Yet, in a turnaround that has surprised even industry figures, the Greek capital is expected to see a 750,000 increase in arrivals this year. Already one million tourists have arrived – spilling out of archaeological sites and the narrow alleyways of the picturesque Plaka district beneath the Acropolis, piling into restaurants and cafes and cramming the stores that sell the fodder of every classic Greek holiday: sandals, statues, T-shirts and bags.
“We have seen a rise in occupancy rates of 25% in the first five months of this year, which is the highest in Europe,” enthused Alexandros Vassilikos, chair of the Athens Hoteliers Association. “Tourism is the low-hanging fruit of the Greek economy. We have the basic infrastructure. We don’t need to make huge investments. It’s all there.”
But the UK-trained economist also conceded Greece had its work cut out if tourism was to fulfil its potential. With the country bereft of heavy industry – and scrambling to find work for a youth population starved of jobs – the sector is widely seen as the fuel that can keep the Greek economy’s engine going.
“Half of the 19 million we are expecting this year will visit Greece in the next 90 days,” added Vassilikos. “If we want to reap more benefits from tourism it is vital that we improve our product, extend the season, branch into other niche markets like cultural and medical tourism.”
SETE has set a target of 24 million visitors by 2021 – a rise that would contribute an annual €44bn or 20% to gross domestic product. That, say industry experts, would create as many as a million jobs in a nation where some 1.5 million are unemployed.
“Tourism is not just an important sector. It has complementarity with other sectors,” said George Pagoulatos, professor of European politics and economy at Athens University of economics and business. “It can help expand agro-tourism, promote real estate and trigger investment in infrastructure and transport, all of which creates a virtuous circle.”
But the rush to find jobs – the key to ensuring political stability – has also raised questions over whether Greece can cope. The finance ministry has sparked howls of protest proposing that mass development be allowed along the country’s coast, still among the most pristine in Europe.
“There is the threat of over-exploitation,” added Pagoulatos. “We don’t want Greek seashores being transformed into cement cities that resemble Majorca and Ibiza.”
In his two-star hotel in Paros, Anastasios Gikas was the first to agree that tourism needed a rethink. He has painted the 15-room establishment, turned it into a “boutique hotel” and ensured that breakfast comes with the finest products Paros has to offer. “My reservations are up, up, up,” he said, showing his booking sheets.” “But the problem is we’re full only June, July and August. The rest of the year is dead.”
With Greece’s great economic crisis catapulting tourism onto centre stage, industry figures have spent much of the crisis devising ways of better showcasing the “Greek tourism product”. No more so than in the airy officers of the consultancy firm Marketing Greece. Here, on the fifth floor of 20 Voukourestiou street, young marketing managers and PR experts sit at computers strategising how to “rebrand Greece”.
The company, established by SETE last year, is the private sector’s answer to what is increasingly seen as the country’s marketing conundrum and marks the first time entrepreneurs have actively sought to promote Greece abroad.
“We’ve spent the past year using the best technology, both in and outside Greece, designing and developing a multi-lingual website that promotes the Greek experience,” said Iossif Parsalis, the firm’s general manager. “Our priority is to attract high-growth tourism with high-income earners but to do that we need to change perceptions, move away from mass tourism and upgrade the quality of what this country has to offer.”
Is this the end of the classic sun, sea and sand package so beloved of thousands of young Britons every summer? Could Greece really be reinventing itself?
“The crisis has made us reconsider the way we do a lot of things,” said Anastasios Naoum, Swiss-trained general manager at the upmarket Poseidonion hotel on the Argo Saronic isle of Spetses. “For the first time I’m seeing Greek hoteliers attending seminars, taking notes, asking all the right questions. Mass tourism will always exist but now is the time to change.”
Naoum’s words are not without a poignant symbolism: it was at the opening of the Poseidonion, 100 years ago next month, that Eleftherios Venizelos, the then prime minister, announced the necessity for a Greek tourism board.
Standing on the hotel’s seafront porch Louis Mueller, an American sculptor, takes in the view. The Greek crisis has neither deterred him, nor 200 other guests from the US, from making the journey to attend the wedding of a couple more normally based in LA.
“Greece offers the best of all worlds,” he says, adjusting his blue-tinted spectacles. “It seemed a bit far-fetched, at first, coming so far for a wedding, but it’s been wonderful, and I’ll be back.”