Special report: Greek hoteliers hope for change as bailout talks continue

Special report: Greek hoteliers hope for change as bailout talks continue

Greek tourism has had a tough four years and hoteliers and inbound agents are furious at the politicians they blame for fiddling while Athens has burned.

Yet there is hope of change under a new government and from a tourism minister many believe understands the needs of the sector.

Evangelia Mendrinou, owner of the Aressana Hotel in Fira, Santorini, says: “The last government did nothing for tourism. Previous ministers just cared for their image, not for the image of Greece and the [country’s] tourism programme.

“We didn’t have people [under the minister] who stayed in the tourism programme when the government changed.”

Now the government has change again following the June 17 general election, with the young Olga Kefalogianni appointed as tourism minister. Mendrinou hopes this marks a watershed.

“The [new] minister comes from a tourism background. Her family are hoteliers in Crete. She knows a lot about the tourism business from the inside.

“She has power already, she doesn’t need more. She is rich already, she doesn’t need a job. She doesn’t need to build her image. That is my personal opinion – I’m not of the same politics [as the minister].”

Mendrinou estimates the UK market to Santorini as 10%-12% down on numbers year on year and visitors to the island about 8% down overall. But Santorini remains a big destination with direct flights from the UK.

On Paros, Dimitris Petropoulos, owner of inbound agency Erkyna Travel, says: “It is a year when we try to survive. Survival is on everybody’s minds.”

Paros port is bustling, the restaurants nearby busy but relaxed. Everywhere is open. Visitors arriving back from boat exursions  late-afternoon are exuberant. There is no sign of ‘crisis’.

The island lacks an international airport so UK visitors must fly to Mykonos or Santorini and take a ferry. As a consequence, Paros does not feature strongly in most tour operators’ programmes.

Where once it was among the top-ten Greek destinations from the UK, now the British market lies behind those of France and Germany as the island’s most imporantant after Greece. Domestic tourists are its mainstay and these have been less numerous.

Petropoulos says visitor numbers were down 20% or more on last year in April and May. He puts numbers in July at 5%-6% down, adding: “Almost half the visitors to the Cyclades come in July and August.”

He says: “People are spending money, but not as much as previous years.”

The island’s authorities hope a new international airport, on which work should begin in September, will bring flights from the UK.

Deputy mayor of Paros Louis Kontos says the contracts are signed, work should begin on schedule and the airport be ready for summer 2015.

Kontos insists the island’s tourism infrastructure has not suffered from the budget crisis in Athens. The council has cut spending on areas such as events and marketing, he says, but not on cleaning, refuse collection and other services that are vital when the population swells each summer from 13,000 to 80,000-plus.

According to Kontos, the council workforce has grown by 50%-60% as normal to cope. He adds: “We have seen travel businesses close in Greece, but not on Paros.”

Petropoulos says: “Most places are run as family businesses, so people can manage costs. That is important. Maybe waiters have a lower salary. Maybe an owner negotiates a lower rent. People try to survive. The crisis is mainly in the big cities.”

He adds: “Our grandfathers had the war. Our fathers had a dictatorship. We know how to survive a crisis.”

Xavier Haritou, owner of the four-star Holiday Sun Hotel at Pounta, insists: “We are not a country at the end of the world.”
He is exasperated with the politicians in Athens and with the demands of those now in ultimate control of the Greek budget: the troika of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund.

But Haritou is anything but pessimistic. He says: “We are not going to change our mentality. If anything Greece is better now. We are stronger. People come for the Greek people, not only for Greece.”

Then, looking around, he adds: “Look where we are living. It is for this people come.”


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