Tourism at a low - Greece wishes you were there

By Lucy Tobin

It will take a lot to get tourists to flock back to Greece. Photo / AP
It will take a lot to get tourists to flock back to Greece. Photo / AP

"Wish you were here" isn't a slogan that can be spotted amid the racks of postcards spilling into the streets in Athens' tourist traps, but the sentiment is visible everywhere.

It's in the eyes of every bored-looking hotel receptionist and overstocked ice-cream vendor.

Greece wishes you were here.

It's not just a glib hope - tourism is at the centre of the country's recovery plan. We all know Greece's economy is in strife, drowning in debt with no life-saving ring in sight.

Away from the eurozone, political wrangling, and far from the economic catastrophe that caretaker prime minister Panagiotis Pikramenos is struggling to contain, nearly a fifth of Greece's 11 million population is trying to make a living through tourism.

The sector accounts for 18 per cent of Greece's GDP, and employs more than 900,000 people.

The country hosts 9600 hotels, 764,000 beds ready for tourist heads, 2300 car hire firms, and 500 yacht companies. Yet where visitor numbers rose nearly 10 per cent to 16.4 million last year, bookings were down 20 per cent up until the recent election, and plunged 50 per cent after the vote that saw 7 per cent of Greek citizens backing the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party.

Still, it's a huge PR job to stop tourists from associating Greece with riots, strikes and shortages and get them again to view it as a top holiday destination.

According to Sete, Greece's tourism trade body, the collapse in numbers is not just due to the economic crisis: last year's record visitor figures were flattered by tourists steering clear of countries affected by the Arab Spring. Over the past week, bookings have improved, slightly: they're now only 25 per cent behind day-to-day bookings of this time a year ago. That's not enough.

Shops are shuttered, cafes closed and vandalised. Vat on restaurant meals rose from 13 per cent to 23 per cent last September. The boarded-up Athenian cafes were clearly a victim, but so too was the Government.

While the vat almost doubled, tax receipts from restaurants are down over the past six months. "When a small taverna has to pay vat at 23 per cent plus all the other taxes and can't raise prices because demand is already down, they either don't survive, or they cheat," says Andreas Andreadis, Sete's chairman.

The outlook might seem gloomy but a band of Greek travel entrepreneurs are beaming out big plans to boost tourism and in doing so, save the nation. "At the moment, we're offering deals that are at rock-bottom prices," says Panos Paleologos, who runs HotelBrain, a hotel management firm and its portfolio of 52 luxury and four-star properties in Greece.

"Now is the very best time for tourists, because hotels' products haven't been affected, they still have full staffing and all the facilities are open. If the political situation continues, that will change, we will start to see cutbacks."

Hotel prices are about 15 per cent down on last year.

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