Greece’s Tourism Minister Says Refugee Crisis Won’t Hurt

Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Yorgos Konstantinidis)

ATHENS – Another record summer season for Greece ended just as a new surge in the arrivals of refugees and migrants on islands began but Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis said the two aren’t mixing or cutting into travelers coming.

“We are dealing with a migrant crisis much more effectively and aggressively than the previous government,” Theoharis told the British newspaper The Telegraph. “We are certain that it will not affect at all the experience of tourists coming to Greece,” he added.

Officials on Lesbos, popular East Aegean island almost within sight of Turkey, which lets human traffickers send refugees and migrants during an essentially suspended swap deal with the European Union, had complained the presence of so many refugees and migrants was keeping tourists away, amid images of the two sometimes commingling.

Lesbos hosts the notorious Moria detention center that is overwhelmed with more than 10,000 people in a facility built to house only a third of them, setting off frequent tension between ethnic groups and with riot police, refugees and migrants who fled their homelands in the Middle East going to Turkey as a jumping-off point to get to the EU, which set its doors to them.

That has dumped the problem largely on Greece as it tries to recover from a more than 9 1/2-yer-long economic and austerity crisis and trying to handle asylum applications from just about every one of more than 78,000 refugees and migrants, including some 33,700 on islands, including Samos, Kos, Chios and Leros.

The government is transferring thousands to the mainland – trying to offset constant new arrivals – and wants to return 20,000 to Turkey, and Greece is settling into a less-crowded autumn-and-winter season although it’s marketing the country as a 365 day a year destination too.

The UN said Greece had received 45,600 of the 77,400 people who had crossed the Mediterranean in 2019 up to October, more than Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus combined, news around the world.

Theoharis, from the New Democracy Conservatives who ousted the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA in July 7 snap elections, said, “We are doing everything we can to minimize the potential impact of the crisis,, having in mind that this is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis.”

Former tourism chief Elena Kountoura from SYRIZA, who critics said failed to deal with the refugee and migrant crisis that began soon after it won power in January, 2015, had said it wasn’t a problem for visitors and that “everyday life on the islands has been normal,” while it wasn’t and at the same time she admitted hotel bookings had fallen with Samos’ Mayor saying they had then fallen 37 percent.

Since 2010, when Greece got the first of what turned into three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($358.95 billion) the number of tourists has doubled from 15 to more than 30 million, Greece benefiting from terrorism and unrest in competitors such as Egypt and Turkey.

Theoharis said the sector will grow, although it’s grown so much on Santorini that the number of cruise ships is being limited and the island is now so overrun with tourists they can’t walk on streets in the most popular cliff area without bumping into each other.

He didn’t believe it. If you look at the international KPIs (key performance indicators), you will realize that in fact Santorini is not currently suffering from overtourism,” he said despite evidence it is.

“However, a global brand like Santorini has to lead the way in terms of green or more accurately ‘blue’ sustainability initiatives. This is exactly what we will focus on the next few years, together with actively managing the flow of tourists and developing adequate infrastructure,” he told the paper, contradicting himself.

“In the past few years, due to factors that were beyond Greece’s control, cruising has seen a slight drop from its previous peaks,” he said.

“As a result, it can be stated that our destinations do not currently face an issue of excessive cruising flows … as the area picks up and Greece enters again the calendar of the big cruise ships, we need to ensure that the management of the flow is done in such a way that does not create temporary problems.”