Tourist, refugees collide on Greek holiday isles

Refugees at the port of the eastern Greek island of Samos, where tourist bookings are in decline. Photo / AP
Refugees at the port of the eastern Greek island of Samos, where tourist bookings are in decline. Photo / AP

Two words representing two worlds concisely express the uncertain atmosphere plaguing Greece's picturesque holiday islands in the eastern Aegean these days: "tourists" is one, and the other is "refugees".

Greek hoteliers on such islands as Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros prefer not to hear any sentence containing the two words together. But realistically speaking, officials know every would-be tourist has heard about the refugees using the area as a gateway to Europe.

For going on a year now the drama of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere has played out, sometimes tragically, on the scenic shores of the eastern Aegean Sea islands.

Often the two worlds would jarringly intersect - here the vacationers from affluent and stable European countries dining at a seaside restaurant, while over there, a hundred metres away, destitute and desperate refugees arriving, wet and hungry, after a perilous journey in an inflatable boat from Turkey.

The island authorities finally started to get a better grip in coping with the refugees - and found a way to keep the two worlds apart. A March deal between the European Union and Turkey seems to have done the rest by making the Aegean route unattractive.

At the recent International Tourism Fair in Berlin, the islands were confident enough to be offering all-included packages costing just a few hundred euros, guaranteeing a week of sunshine and, hopefully, not much in the way of refugees.

Children play with a toy camera in a Greek refugee camp. Photo / AP
Children play with a toy camera in a Greek refugee camp. Photo / AP

Greece needs the business, what with tourism accounting for a quarter of the overall performance of the country's plagued economy. Officials say bookings are now up compared with a year ago, but the picture is a divided one.

On one hand there is the island of Santorini, a good distance removed from the Aegean, which is very much in demand - so much so, that Greece has had to step in and set a limit of 8000 day guests from cruise ships this coming summer.

On the other hand the Aegean island vacation spots are expecting fewer visitors than last year because of lingering bad publicity.

On Lesbos, the island hardest-hit by the refugee drama, bookings are down 90 per cent.

Many hotel and taverna owners have resigned themselves to the situation, although they have managed to earn money from another source - international aid workers arriving from all over the world to help the refugees.

One such taverna is To Kyma on the northern shore of Lesbos, doing fair business with rescue teams, journalists and others amid the refugee crisis. On its website the restaurant shows pictures of plates filled with tasty meals of fish and salad, as well as of sunshine, palm trees and, in the background, the blue Aegean.

Lesbos is doing much better today than was the case last October, at the height of the influx of refugees. Then the island was overrun by refugees while the beaches were littered with countless orange-coloured swimming vests and wrecked inflatable rafts.

"Who would want to vacation here?" was the disillusioned comment of one taverna keeper at the time.

Now, however, Lesbos can present a somewhat improved picture.

The number of refugees declined and the authorities mobilised to put migrants into lodgings and clean up the rubbish on the beaches.

In the small village of Vathy on the island of Samos, there is scarcely any trace of refugees. On average about 1000 have been on the island at any given time, but ferries have quickly transported them off to the Greek mainland, to the port of Piraeus near Athens.

New refugee arrivals in Vathy are taken to reception camps, out of sight of the tourist areas.

Still, bookings for Samos are said to be running about 40 per cent behind a year ago. Hotel industry officials decline to comment on the situation. But local Samos residents are more willing to talk.

Barkeepers tend to ask guests from northern Europe how the mood is back home and what people are saying about the Greek islands.

A taxi driver insists that things are back to normal, and points out all the scenic sights along his route.

Then there is Rena Chatzikiriakou, who along with other women on the island is engaged in voluntary work to help the refugees. She speaks for many locals when she says, "We really had, and still do have, a struggle here.

"But visitors don't really notice much of it. If you want to support us, then there is a marvellous way to do it: simply come here for your holidays!"

- AAP

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