Greece’s biggest revenue engine – tourism – could again be a life saver for the still-battered economy with officials expecting a second consecutive year setting records in the number of visitors, and hoping they’ll spend even more than they did in 2013, a rebound year.
Tourists stayed away in droves in 2012 in the aftermath of images of protests, strikes and riots against austerity measures imposed by the government on the orders of international lenders putting up $325 billion in two bailouts to prop up the faltering economy which is in the seventh year of a deep recession with record unemployment and poverty.
“Forecasts show 2014 will be another record year,” said Andreas Andreadis, President of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises. As many as 18.5 million tourists will visit Greece this year, compared with 17.9 million in 2013, generating 13 billion euros ($18 billion) in revenue, he said.
“Almost all traditional and new markets are showing positive, encouraging signs,” he told the Bloomberg news agency.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has called the country’s tourist industry “the first locomotive that started and began to pull our economy out of a painful six-year recession” that’s seen unemployment reach a record 28 percent.
If Greece beats a target of 24 million visitors by 2021 it would add 9 percentage points in GDP while creating 300,000 jobs, Andreadis said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Tourism accounted for 16.4 percent of Greek Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012, according to World Travel and Tourism Council figures, one of the highest contributions in Europe. The GDP now is $249.1 billion but debt is $430 billion and Greece hopes tourists will keep pouring money into depleted state coffers.
About 1 million people will work in the industry by 2021, according to the Greek association, known as SETE. Long-term tourism targets are based on assumptions of political and macroeconomic improvements in the country, Andreadis said.
“Political stability within Greece, and achieving the rest of our national objectives, will hopefully ensure that 2021 targets will be reached and surpassed,” he said. Greece will also need to invest 3.3 billion euros per year, mainly in infrastructure, he said.
Pre-booking figures indicate Greece can expect more tourists from Germany and France this year and a 10 percent rise in visitors from the UK, according to the most recent figures from SETE.
More Germans visit Greece than any other nationality, followed by the UK, FYROM, France and Russia. The association is also in talks with the Greek government about public-private industry initiatives, Andreadis said, adding that monuments, museums and other antiquities sites should remain under state protection.
During the crushing economic crisis, Greece has cut back on tourism offices abroad, including in the United States where critics said Greece takes the audience for granted.