ATHENS (AFP) – Foreign tourists are finding their way back to Greece’s islands and ancient ruins, offering a rare boost to an economy contracting for the sixth year running.
Arrivals are on the up again after dismal 2012 figures but domestic tourism is at a standstill and Greece’s second-tier destinations are more deserted than ever.
The Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) this month announced a 10 percent rise in foreign arrivals at airports for the first half of 2013.
The Bank of Greece in turn announced that in the year running up to May, tourism revenue had soared 38.5 percent and foreign arrivals 24 percent. It also said that tourism revenue grew 15 percent between January and May.
Head of SETE Andreas Andreadis said that improved political stability compared to 2012, a drop in prices caused by the economic crisis as well as the cancellation of holidays to Turkey and Tunisia all contributed to the recovery.
“The winter of 2012 and all the protests held in the country (against austerity measures) had caused a great drop in summer bookings. All the uncertainty with the back-to-back elections in May and June did not help either,” he told AFP.
If the upward trend continues through the crucial months of July and August, the number of foreign visitors is expected to pass the 17 million mark in 2013, after dipping under 16 million last year.
Much is at stake, as tourism makes up 17 percent of Greece’s GDP, in a country where unemployment is close to 27 percent. But an investigation by the financial crimes unit SDOE confirmed it would take more than revived tourist enthusiasm to replenish state coffers.
It found that about half of the one million hotels, restaurants and beaches inspected over the past year were dodging tax.
In the highly popular islands of Rhodes and Santorini, three-quarters of the businesses inspected were fined. Germans, Britons, Russians and French make up the majority of tourists visiting Greece.
Santorini has recently also seen an increase in bookings from Chinese, Japanese and Korean visitors, according to Panagiotis Bletsis, head of the island’s tourism office.
The popular island known for its breathtaking views registered the highest increase in foreign tourist arrivals for June with 27.5 percent.
“The most popular destinations are the ones benefitting the most from this rise, such as Mykonos, Rhodes, the Cycladic islands,” Andreadis said.
Other destinations, traditionally frequented mostly by Greeks, have a hard time making ends meet, he said. “Small hotels and room rentals that are not advertised face difficulties,” he said.
In the seaside town of Xylokastro in the Peloponnese, a two-hour drive from Athens, Margarita Theodossiou said she had never experienced such a difficult start to the summer season. “We are just left feeling tired,” she said, explaining she can barely cover the running costs of her small hotel, Villa Margarita.
According to a survey carried out by the country’s consumer institute, 73 percent of Greeks will not go on holiday this summer, up from 69 percent last year.
The only affordable option for many Greeks was the popular practice of camping in the wild but the government has just doubled the fine for free campers.