GO TO GREECE!
Where’s the Tourists?
It is May in Greece – 25 degrees, the sea and sky a searing blue, homes and hotels a crisp white, and cobble stoned streets scented with jasmine and gardenia. The scene is set, but few are at the table. Where are all the tourists we expected to see jamming
the seaside quays, queuing at archeological sites, haggling for local products, streaming up to cliffside monasteries? In the month we have been here we have had the undivided attention of hotel and restaurant owners, roused car rental salesmen from their longer than usual winter snooze, and rattled around 1000 seat ferries and entire networks of trails virtually on our own. Low season prices have been dropped even further to draw in more tourists – generally about 25% less than prices stated in my 10-year-old Lonely Planet guide book! The Greek islands with long-established tourist reputations – Rhodes, Mykonos, Santorini – are still awash with well-heeled holidaymakers, but even they have been forced to modify their prices. Given the Greek Islands’ iconic reputation as being the charmed jewels of the Aegean, the modicum of visitors this spring has prompted a bit of street research to find out why we’ve got this bit of paradise to ourselves.
Refugees in the Greek Islands
As suspected, it is the refugee crisis, or more accurately, people’s reactions to the crisis, that has affected Greek’s tourism industry. Northern Europeans booking their spring and summer vacations have shifted from the Greek islands, where there is perceived ‘political unrest’, to those places considered safer, such as Spain. The booking changes have been clearly reflexive and
uninformed (not to mention, xenophobic) as the refugees are now either being detained in Turkey or are using a land route through Thrace and Macedonia to reach their northern European destinations. Any refugees still on the islands are housed in camps awaiting the granting of asylum so the perceived ‘threat’ of wading through tent cities and bedraggled, begging refugees is completely unfounded. When we went through ports on Kos and Samos, islands both within a few miles of Turkey, there was no sign of political unrest or temporary settlements crowding the quays.
Impact on Tourism
The irony to all this is that Greece’s humanitarianism – its willingness to help, rescue, house, feed and process nearly a million refugees on the islands alone – has had a negative impact on its tourist industry. The millions of dollars that have been spent to assist the largest migration of people displaced by wars since World War II is being ‘repaid’ by millions of dollars lost to businesses
dependent on tourists. The saying ‘no kind deed goes unpunished’ has never been truer than when sizing up the current state of Greece’s tourist industry. And this good deed is coming from people whose near bankrupt state has been common knowledge
since 2009. Whose taxes have been raised to 23%, insurance rates to 40%, whose pensions and salaries have been rolled back to the point where the average pension is $400.00/month and average income $1,000.00. Where people are limited to
400 euro a week withdrawals from their bank accounts due to capital controls installed since the IMF bail-out last summer. These are the same people – poor by Canadian standards – who have opened their hearts and borders to the wronged and the displaced, having known what it means to be estranged from one’s country so many times in their history. And because their sense of duty to strangers – derived from long-honoured concepts of philotimo (love of honour), and xenia (hospitality) – insisted that they be generous and courteous to those who were far from home. The Greeks, like writer Henry Miller noted 80 years ago, “have no wall around them; they give and take without stint.” Meanwhile, wealthier nations to the north are building walls.
Greece Still Enchants
Greece needs and deserves our patronage now. The best way to acknowledge its honourable service to those suffering from the Syrian crisis and to ensure its security as a robust and contributing member of the European Union, is to include it (along with
its beautiful Anatolian neighbour!) in your next holiday. We have been here four times
in the last five years – the warmth, spirit and integrity of the people, the simplicity of life, the stark beauty of its landscape – keep drawing us back. For those who backpacked through the islands in the 70s, guaranteed you will be enchanted all over again. And find that your travel, food and lodging costs are still a bargain during low season – we’re managing on about $60.00/day each even now! One caveat though – given that Greece is the birthplace of democracy – don’t be surprised if your travel plans get a little ‘re-organized’ by labour strikes. Unions are still strong here and even though larger general strikes – which close airports and shut down ferry services – are
yet another hit to the tourism industry – it is clear that a Greek’s right to voice their opinion trumps business. But don’t worry – getting stranded on a Greek island during a strike, as we did, is probably not unlike getting help up in heaven. There are worst things, I’m sure!