Athens – (Reuters) Athens reckons the outlook for tourism is less gloomy than after anti-austerity riots last month and is shifting to seek visitors from China or Japan more interested in Greece’s ancient culture than its sunshine.
‘I’m not saying it’s going to be a good year for Greek tourism but we hope to recover many of the losses,’ Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos told Reuters during a promotion of Greek islands, beaches and temples.
Many foreign visitors cancelled trips after the deaths of three people, including a pregnant woman, in rioting in Athens on May 5 against government cuts imposed to secure a European Union and IMF bailout worth 110 billion euros (S$188 billion).
At the height of the crisis, Geroulanos said Athens feared that the percentage fall in revenues from tourism – which accounts for almost a fifth of Greece’s gross domestic product – ‘could have been in double digits’ in 2010 from 2009.
‘Now we hope to keep it in the low single digits,’ he said in an interview late on Monday night. ‘I’m cautious in mentioning numbers because the situation is still fluid.’
He said Athens was hardest hit by cancellations, while some islands were barely affected.
In an incentive, Greece would guarantee hotel costs for tourists stranded, for instance by strikes or flights grounded by ash from an Icelandic volcano.
Greek Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos said the government would “guarantee” extra room and board payments made by visitors as rail unions started a series of stoppages.
The minister said compensation would even be paid for tourists stuck in Greece during the volcano eruption in Iceland in April that blocked European air routes for several days.
Geroulanos gave no details though of how much the compensation would cost nor how it would be paid.
Thousands of travellers have had holidays in Greece disrupted by successive strikes as the country grapples with a debt crisis that brought draconian wage and pension cuts.
Greece was recently saved from a debt default with a 110-billion-euro (136 billion dollar) bailout loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
But as Athens labours to maximise revenue, tens of millions of euros have already been lost from booking cancellations according to government estimates.
Railway workers on Tuesday began a series of two-hour work stoppages to last until Thursday, disrupting inter-city trains and services to Athens International Airport.
On Wednesday, communist-affiliated ship crews blocked the main Greek port of Piraeus.
The tourism industry had hoped to benefit from a weaker euro to stabilise revenues after a 10 per cent drop in 2009. Greece’s overall GDP is expected to contract by 4 per cent this year.
In a switch from dependence on European visitors, Geroulanos said that Greece wanted to attract more tourists from countries including China, India and Japan.
He was planning to travel last week to China to promote Greece. Germans and Britons make up about a third of about 15 million annual visitors to Greece but have been among those with the most cancellations.
Visitors from countries such as China, India and Japan ‘can be very substantial’ in the long term, he said. And they would not overlap with the sun-worshipping beach tourists.
‘They are not stuck on a particular time to visit… they dislike extreme heat and prefer times when they can go and visit monuments and cultural sites,’ he said.
‘The more tourists we have like that the more we can preserve the culture of Greece as we want it to be.
‘We don’t need to become too accommodating to changes in our culture,’ he said. Some British tourists, for instance, merely wanted to ‘experience a British pub in a warm place.’
So far this year ‘you see a drop in numbers (of tourists) from England and Germany but we see a huge increase from Russia. And they tend to spend more money per capita,’ he said.
Greece would also seek to ease EU visa requirements for visitors from Turkey, for instance by allowing passengers on cruise ships one- or two-day stays in Greece. –