Gazing out over Thessaloniki’s waterfront, Regina Jost, a social worker from Jever, in northern Germany, was on her last day of a week’s holiday discovering Greece’s picturesque northern beaches. “When I told my friends I was going to Greece on vacation, they said: ‘Oh be careful, something might happen, you’ll come up against bad feeling against Germans, people will hold it against you for being German,’” she said.
But despite the political tension between Athens and Berlin as Greece battles for economic survival, Jost said she had not experienced what some German media have described as “the fear of spit in the ouzo”. After six years of Greek caricatures of Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform, Greek demands for Nazi war reparations and the resentment at Berlin’s stance as unrelenting paymaster, only one person had been slightly frosty towards Jost – and that was a German whom she had asked for directions.
“There has been no bad feeling. Everybody has been so kind – overfriendly, even,” she said. “This is all about the politics, tourists are not responsible for that.” Björn Jürgensen, an electrical technician travelling with her, added: “I haven’t thought about the crisis at all, people have been great.”
The tourist sun-loungers and bars seem a world away from the meeting rooms of Brussels. But tourism is more than ever a barometer of Athens’s international relations and a lifeline for the economy. Tourism is Greece’s biggest industry, making up a fifth of GDP. Last year, record numbers of tourist flocked to Greece, including a record 2.5 million Germans; there was a 17% increase of Germans arriving on package holidays.
This year had been expected to set further records, but the uncertainty over Greece’s future and fears of a credit crunch and capital controls has begun to scare off Germans. The surge in tourism last year that helped drag the country out of a six-year slump has given way in the first months of this year to a drop in momentum. While UK and US tourists rush to benefit from the exchange rate, German bookings for Greece have unexpectedly declined since the radical left Syriza took power and as the economic crisis deepened.
This month Germany’s travel board felt the need to issue a statement assuring travellers: “Despite isolated political campaigns against Germany in the past, German tourists do not need to fear hostility or hatred in Greece.” So crucial is the tourist trade to Greece that two conservative German politicians, Axel Fischer and Ruediger Kruse, proposed that German holidaymakers whose holiday spending helps boost the Greek economy should be reimbursed €500 by the German state on their return – on condition that the hotel and restaurants they visited have paid their taxes.
On a long stretch of beach at the holiday spot of Perea, outside Thessaloniki, Eleftheria Poungoura had repainted her gift shop and carefully arranged the array of scarves, bags and luxury souvenirs. But on her newsstand the headline from the front page of the Daily Mirror – “Acropolypse Now” – was a reminder of the possibility of Greece having to leave the euro.
Poungoura, who trained in computer graphics, had been struggling to find a job over the past few years, so she had opened her shop almost two months ago. “At fist I thought people would think I was absolutely crazy starting a business. But I’m starting fresh, other businesses have debts and owe lots of money, it’s much easier for me to survive.” She said she worked from 10am to 3am each day and didn’t feel able to take on staff. “Tourist income is the biggest income we have, the biggest hope,” she said.
Poungoura had had many German tourist customers, one of whom had been buying Bild every day for three weeks. “We don’t let politics get in the way of personal relations,” she said. “Greeks do not hate German people, many of my friends live in Germany, many have gone there to work.”
Those working in Greek tourism worry that any VAT hikes that might be imposed under a financial deal in the coming days might force a rise in prices. On Perea’s beachfront, value for money was a crucial draw for tourists. “The other day, some German visitors came in and bought six bottles of wine. They said they were going to Athens and the same wine would be far more expensive if they bought it there. Price does matter,” Poungoura said.
Angela Verbeneiuc, a Romanian economist, had been travelling the beaches with her family, attracted by the weather and the prices. She had noticed the high contingent of eastern European and Russian visitors. Nikolai Marchenko, an engineer from Siberia who worked in Thessaloniki and was showing tourist friends around, said that if Greece left the euro there was “no doubt” the country would turn to Russia for support.
Susan and Roger Askill, from the West Midlands, had been travelling in Rhodes and Crete before returning to the Cyprus cottage they had retired to several years ago. They had heeded Foreign Office advice to bring enough cash to get by in case of bank closures, and used hotel safes during their journey. “It’s best to be prepared but we never considered cancelling our trip,” Susan Askill said.
Odd Skriubakken, a retired teacher from Sarpsborg, Norway, said: “My wife has just retired and needed some sun. We booked months ago and wouldn’t have dreamt of cancelling. Despite everything, Greece is still seen primarily as a holiday destination. I’d rather come here to spend money helping the economy and helping the people.”
source: Guardian U.K.