Tourism offers Greece hope in debt gloom

By Bryan McManus

Athens' Acropolis at sunset. Greece's Government is doing its best with the limited resources available, upgrading services and amenities at nearly 200 archaeological sites and museums to encourage repeat visitors. Photo / Thinkstock
Athens' Acropolis at sunset. Greece's Government is doing its best with the limited resources available, upgrading services and amenities at nearly 200 archaeological sites and museums to encourage repeat visitors. Photo / Thinkstock

Tourism, an important source of revenues and jobs, could be a key lifeline for debt-stricken Greece but it needs help and support to get through the current crisis, industry officials say.

Greece has much to offer any visitor, from some of the world's premier historic sights such as the Acropolis in Athens to top beaches and resorts on its famed islands, assets that should be better promoted and managed.

Getting that message across, however, amid intense competition for the tourist dollar, is made only harder by the country's debt crisis which cuts state funding and gives the wrong image abroad.

"The publicity about the Greek debt is not exactly what you (would see) ... as the best promotion for the country," said George Drakopoulos, director general of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE).

To give the industry a boost, Drakopoulos said he wanted lower sales and airport taxes, improved investment conditions and liberalisation of the important cruise segment - measures which will not come easily to a strapped government looking to get every tax cent it can get.

Instead, the government recently hiked sales tax to 23 per cent, whilst making some exceptions for all-inclusive packages.

Speaking shortly after the latest protests against yet more austerity measures, Drakopoulos said such belt-tightening does "not really contribute to the development of the economy".

Rather, the tourism industry had found in the the past that when taxes were cut, "the extra demand which follows generates more revenue in ... taxes and relevant receipts for the state," Drakopoulos told AFP.

At a time of such strains on the economy - which remains stuck in deep recession - tourism is very important, accounting currently for around 15 per cent of activity.

Despite the negative backdrop, recent figures have been encouraging - Greece welcomed some 14.2 million visitors, up 10.4 per cent, in the nine months to September this year, more than offsetting a decline in domestic travel.

However, average tourist spending was 655 euros per stay, down 0.8 from last year as prices come under pressure from tour operators anxious to keep up their numbers, according to the Bank of Greece.

"Tourism is leading the way for the economy in the current climate," George Tsakiris, head of the Greek Chamber of Hotels told the Kathiemrini newspaper at the weekend.

"It is the only Greek product offered overseas ... Tourism is slowly regaining its place in the country's economy, political and social agenda," Tsakiris said.

For 2012, the key issues are the aftermath of popular unrest in North Africa, home to key competitors for North European visitors, and whether the eurozone debt crisis can be resolved without a breakup of the currency union, he said.

The government meanwhile is doing its best with the limited resources available, upgrading services and amenities at nearly 200 archaeological sites and museums to encourage repeat visitors, a key component for sustained earnings.

"It was a necessary step even during the crisis. In fact, I'd say it is particularly necessary during a crisis," Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos said late last month.

"We found that Greece had one of the lowest rates in return visitors ... Some sites lacked basic services such as information brochures, others had deplorable public health areas or had shops without items to sell or vendors," he said.

Authorities now hope to introduce electronic tickets and portable audio guides to the top 20 sites by 2013, including the Athens Acropolis, the oracle of Delphi and Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games.

- AFP

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