There are many useful Greek words we can’t live without — crisis, chaos, catastrophe, anarchy, hubris — but one of the most valuable but rarely used is entropy, the word for the inevitable decay of all things (i.e. one day the sun will go out). Tourism is the third biggest export earner for Greece, but this year has been, well almost, a catastrophe and in June I sensed in my corner of paradise, the north-west coast of the large Aegean island of Lesbos, that the locals were in entropic retreat, that because nobody was around, they were reverting to their old ways: shops were closing for the afternoon siesta as they did when I first visited here in the early 1970s.
When the rules of the international hospitality industry reached Greece in the 1980s, the siesta (from Latin via Spanish) was frowned on then on later visits in the 1990s business people I met were usually too wary to admit they might be having a bad year. This summer, however, they fessed that things were bad and for the first time they had something other than cheaper deals in Turkey to blame — the crisis. As more than one person told me: if you’ve got a few olive trees, a small flock of sheep and a fisherman in the family, why bother?
The previous government of Costas Karamanlis is also in the frame for hiding the amount of debt Greece built up through dodgy currency swaps (designed by Goldman Sachs) and when Georgio Papandreou took power he had to declare the country’s debts were twice what had been declared and ever since Greece has been routinely blamed for the subsequent 15% slump in the value of the euro.
The list of tourism industry stupidities is long and painful. The previous regime also clocked up a €100 million for “Come to Greece” ads (no more space will be available until it’s paid) and as part of its public sector cuts the new government slashed the Greek National Tourism Office budget in half.
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About 16 million visitors a year come to Greece (nearly 10 million fewer than Turkey) and June is the month that everyone makes calculations on what the summer’s take will be. If June is bad, so then is the year. Business in May or September is a bonus. According to the Academy of Tourism, this year’s June slowdown — blamed on ash from Iceland, riots, strikes and terror bombing (all in Athens) — cost Greece €275 million ($385 million).
The Greek unions called off strikes by air-traffic controllers, ferry and museum workers but promise to resume as soon as summer is officially over (at the end of September). That will only punish Greeks. Arrivals at Athens airport were down up to the end of July and on its map of the capital the Athens Plus English language paper thoughtfully suggests visitors “check ahead” with the Tourist Police (number provided) before setting out on any journey.
The Sect of Revolutionaries didn’t help at the beginning of August with the warning that Greece was no longer a “safe haven for capitalists” so tourists were legitimate targets for their terror campaign against government, police, prison guards (and “corrupt” media — the Sect murdered an investigative journalist and shot up a private TV station) adding “we don’t do politics, we do guerrilla warfare”. A noted anti-terrorism expert thinks tourists should “be vigilant” but a correspondent from Sydney to the Guardian Weekly claimed in August that the Sect is a front for fascist agents provocateurs.
Lesbos is not a whitewashed party island like Rhodes or Mykonos, where planeloads of northerners come down for a week of sun, s-x, ecstasy and doof. It’s congenial but not glamorous enough for the “high end” tourists the government would like to attract. Some resorts offer little more than sunbeds and the all-day-English-breakfast but it’s a big island that could take months to explore and so is suitable for repeat visits. Compared to 10 years ago, the beaches and the shopping streets seemed almost deserted this year in June but true Aegean lovers were not put off: couples from Dorset in retirement living frugally on their modest boats, intrepid sailors from Scandinavia, the US and Switzerland lined up in spiffy yachts next to even spivvier cabin cruisers and crewed luxury barques (rented in Athens) all parked in Molivos harbour, so maybe the “high end” policy may have traction — though the Hellenic Association of Travel Agencies retorts “do we just want kings to come here on holiday?”
All through summer, like Chinese water torturers, government agencies had been drip-feeding facts and figures and projections about the year’s prospects (including news that the Chinese put Greece No.1 on their list of favourite destinations). Often the guesstimates were contradictory. At the beginning of August the Association of Greek Tourism admitted all visitors were down “slightly” by 1% — with Athens suffering a bigger slump of 5% — and the government predicted the summer would see a “seven-year low” fall of 7%-10% in tourism revenues. That 7% being roughly the amount Turkey’s revenue from tourism had already grown.
The Minister for Tourism, Giorgis Nikitiadis, said in July that there would be a “late surge” in arrivals to make up for the slump. Late that month, his ministry predicted a million visitors coming from Russia (but not this year), and sure enough I did see a couple of Russians on one beach. Perceptions are everything: a survey in Kathimerini claims the Brits think Greece is more expensive than it is, and that Turkey is cheaper that it is.
Greek papers reported that of all people Turks were also coming in good numbers — supposedly 200,000 but that was last year and cynical and/or fearful Greeks might interpret this trend as a move to repossess the islands off their west coast — i.e. Lesbos, Chios, Samos — where the Turks’ great grandparents used to live.
Some hotels offered discounts up to 30% but to individuals or families, not package tours. Despite ferry fares being frozen at last year’s level and some generous discounts of 50%, it as feared on the islands that mainland Greeks might stay at home for August (and those who came would spend 10% less). Athenians expect the islands to be cooler than the capital, but alas, a humid heat wave and a hot, dry wind from the north kept temperatures in the high 30s and over for days on Lesbos, but the Athenians did arrive, sweated it out but yes, the anecdotal evidence from shopkeepers and restaurateurs supports the doomsayers — they didn’t spend as much as usual.
The people nobody wants also seem to have cancelled their travel plans — refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and east Africa, are making fewer dangerous crossings by rubber dinghy from Turkey. Even last year, the figure was down 33% on 2008 (still more than 100,000, which gives our panic over a dozen or so “boats” a bit of perspective) although people have still been taking the more hazardous northern land route where dozens have died walking through fields of land mines and swimming the fast-flowing Evros river. Those who make it to Lesbos are no longer incarcerated in the vile Pagani prison but moved to the neighbouring island of Chios to be “processed” and to oversee procedures the EU’s Frontex anti-migrant patrol boat force has been is now parked outside the Blue Seas Hotel on the wharf at Mytilene and occasionally tours the island (although its visit to Molivos harbour in May was for a day of jolly R&R).
Surviving winter is now becoming a critical time for families who don’t have olive trees, a flock of sheep or know a fisherman.