The tourists and big-spending celebrities are pouring into Greece in record numbers, not caring about stinging purple jellyfish, but the fear is that the sunny days will give way to a brutal winter with blackouts if energy problems get worse.
In a feature, The Guardian’s Helena Smith noted that the big shots from Elon Musk to Roger Federer, Magic Johnson and Nicole Kidman are singing the country’s praises in invaluable free publicity, and tourist spending propping up businesses and a tourist sector battered by two years of COVID lockdowns and slowdowns.
A million people a week are coming into the country with indications it could surpass the record busting year of 2019 when 33 million – more then three times the population – arrived before the pandemic struck.
“This year the whole world is voting Greece,” Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias told the Observer as he continued to beat the drum as Greece also wants to bring them year-round, through the winter.
“We have a war in Europe, a pandemic that is still with us, an energy crisis, global uncertainty, inflation, tensions with Turkey and even jellyfish and yet they’re still coming. Arrivals on popular islands are up 20 percent,” he said.
The streets of Athens have never been busier even as the summer heat waves settle over the city like a hot blanket, with everything from archaeological sites and the Acropolis to souvlaki shops seeing people waiting in line.
Costas Lavidas who runs the Athens kebab shop that first made his grandfather famous back in the 1950’s, told the paper that, “If it weren’t for tourists I wouldn’t have the business that I have. Thank God they’re here!”
The full airplanes have been matched by cruise liners lining up for berths with more than 700 expected to dock this year, people no longer worrying the vessels are breeding grounds for the Coronavirus.
“There has been a 280 percent increase in the port of Thessaloniki and a 130 percent increase in Piraeus,” Kikilias said, the Athens neighborhood port brought to life by the Chinese management company COSCO.
Flights into Athens’s international airport, rated the best by travelers as where to be in case of delays or cancellations, have gone up 20 percent and the biggest problem the tourist sector has had has been finding enough help.
“As of 2 March there have been nine direct flights from the US to Athens every day. It’s been a game-changer,” added Kikilias. “Around 500,000 Americans are expected to come by November. They’re big spenders and with the dollar to euro rate they can spend even more,” he said.
Greece raked in 18.2 billion euros ($18.61 billion) in 2019 but that plummeted to just over 10 billion euros ($10.23 billion) in 2021 when a slow comeback was being made even as the pandemic lingered.
Speaking to CNN, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said he thought officials would be “pleasantly surprised” once they “did the math” at the end of the season.
“Greece is doing particularly well this summer,” he told the US network. “We’ve put a lot of effort in upgrading our tourism product, making sure that all new investments in tourism are sustainable. We saw this year the tourism season start very early and I expect it to end very late.”
Tourism brings in as much as 18-20 percent of the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 195.86 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and at its height employed nearly one million people, almost 10 percent of the population.
But darker and colder days could be looming.
Inflation is at 11.5 percent, the highest in 28 years, electric bills have doubled and Greece, like the rest of the European Union, could be with less – or no – Russian energy even though that was exempted from sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.
Mitsotakis, who set aside talk of early elections despite holding a lead of 8 percent in polls over the major opposition SYRIZA, whom he routed in July, 2019 elections, has to worry whether an economic slowdown if the tourists don’t keep coming could linger in voter’s minds.
Especially if, as the government has said, that worst-case scenarios envisage turning down thermostats and even power failures or blackouts if the turn to sustainable sources of energy can’t provide a bulwark this winter.
“We’re an economy still in recovery, an economy that has shrunk 25 percent,” Nikos Vettas, an economics academic who heads the influential IOBE think tank told the British paper about the anxieties.
“Although it’s now growing faster than many others in Europe thanks in part to tourism, the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine are huge threats that cannot be ignored,” he said. Especially if the lights go out and it’s cold.