Greek Tourism Chief Eyes 40 Million Visitor Goal Year-Round

FILE - Sunset in Athens, by the Acropolis. (Photo by EUROKINISSI/YIANNIS PANAGOPOULOS)

ATHENS – A 2017 record tourism draw of 30 million people could be spiked to as many as 40 million a year if there’s more investment in the sector, the head of the Greek Tourism Federation (SETE) Yiannis Retsos said he believes.

Greece, despite an eight-year economic and austerity crisis, continues to draw hordes of visitors lured by its legendary history, sun, beaches and islands and as the government is trying to increase the draw to year-round with other fields such as medical tourism.

But Greece, with all those advantages was only the European Union’s sixth-most visited destination in 2016, according to its statistics agency Eurostat, the financial news agency Bloomberg said in a report, based on nights spent by travelers.

Retsos said that could jump markedly if more resources are added and the Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition – which has just slapped a new overnight stay surtax on rooms – removes obstacles to new capital.

“While having almost 30 million tourists from May to September is a huge number, it could reach 40 million in a nine-month period if the tourism season were extended,” Retsos said in an interview with the agency.

“The bet now is to enrich the tourism product and have added value that will attract not necessarily more, but richer tourists, so we can have more receipts,” while predictions were that the new surtax could instead push visitors to other countries they have shied away from, such as Turkey and North Africa.
Tourism is Greece’s biggest industry, with arrivals rising 10 percent in 2017 from the previous year to 27.2 million and generating revenue of just over 14.5 billion euros ($18 billion), according to Bank of Greece data.

Travel and tourism contributed 32.8 billion euros ($40.24 billion) to Greek economic output in 2016, accounting for 18.6 percent of Greek Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. The London-based body expects that figure to rise to 23.8 percent of Greek output in 2027.
In order to increase arrivals to 36 million and revenues to 20 billion euros ($24.53 billion) by 2021, Greece needs investments worth 6 billion euros ($7.36 billion) a year, Retsos said. “While this is a large number, there is foreign interest to invest,” he said, also calling for public investments, the report added.

There’s been a surge in interest in snapping up cheap properties in the country, particularly in Athens, with Chinese investors eager to acquire even more buildings and units in the tourism hotbed of Plaka and the anarchist stronghold of Exarchia, filled with rundown classical buildings that could be used for Airbnb rentals, driving up rent prices and driving down the availability of rental units during the crisis.
“There are many publicly owned buildings that could be used for tourism purposes such as in Athens where pension funds own properties that are empty and where there are plans to exploit them,” Retsos said.

A big problem has been the lack of upgrading of infrastructure and hotels, particularly on islands, and as hopes are to keep more people in Athens instead of the capital being a quick hit on the way to the islands.

The state needs to improve infrastructure such as ports, marinas and regional airports which will create added value, mainly for the Greek islands, Retsos said.  “Infrastructure on the islands is still in the era of the 1960s and there is also a need to rejuvenate sewage and water provision systems,” he said.

Tourism taxes are another problem, particularly on top of an avalanche of new taxes and hikes imposed by Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, who promised to cut them, but has allowed them even on remote islands that used to get breaks.