New York.- By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
Political instability in Greece has punched a heavy blow to the country’s “heavy industry”, tourism. Total receipts by the end of May were 15% lower, cancelations from Germany alone range between 35-40% and if the trend continues until the end of the year, it will mean a lower income of at least 2,3 billion dollars for the country and the 900,000 people employed in the tourist sector. Last year was one of the best ever for the country’s tourist industry.
Peter Vlitas, vice president for airline sales and marketing for Protravel International, one of the 10 largest US tourist management companies is very pessimistic, tying any possibility for a reverse of the negative climate to a series of factors that should take place simultaneously and within the next few days: For the conservatives to win, for Samaras to be able to form a stable government with his partners and for his coalition to have a broader acceptance from all the political spectrum.
Vlitas is a Greek American involved in many community organizations, including the parish of St Constantine and Helen in Brooklyn, the AHEPA and the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and during the past 3 years he has tried hard to convince the Ministry of Tourism to follow his suggestions on how to proceed in the American market. He is now expressing disappointment that nothing happened.
In his interview with the Greek News, Vlitas points out the reasons why the American tourists are afraid to travel to Greece and the almost impossible task to reverse the negative climate.
Q. As an executive in the tourist industry, how is Greece doing this summer?
A. Unfortunately Greece is not doing well at all. Many people are apprehensive to go; many travel agents are concerned about sending their good clients to Greece because they don’t know what will happen in the coming months.
The main – or actually the only – factor is the political uncertainty. The incidents with “Golden Dawn”, the rise and the statements of Alexis Tsipras create concern. The American tourists only read what they see in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and CNN and the main stream media. Any time they see something written about Greece is negative, because there is nothing good to write about it.
In today’s environment Greece is not a bargain from a tourist’s prospective. Euro is still pretty high, hotel prices are high and no one wants to spend money for his summer vacation to be caught in the middle of a strike or in a negative and depressed climate. For these reasons they are opting to go to other destinations. Turkey is doing extremely well, so does Morocco, Italy and France.
Q. Is anything Greece could do to reverse the climate?
A. As an American of Hellenic descent, involved in the Community and someone who for the last few years has been an advisor to the Minister of Tourism, it pains me that in today’s environment there is nothing we can do, until the political uncertainty will settle. Until there is a Prime Minister and a political party leading Greece effectively, people will think twice about visiting the country.
It is unfortunate that Greece doesn’t have public relations in the United States. It has not an effective mechanism to promote tourism in the U.S. I am sad to say that every recommendation I have made, along with my colleagues who work for many years in the industry were not followed. My company, Protravel, is the tenth largest in the United States. None of our ideas was accepted by the Greek government to enact them and help tourism.
Q. At some point the Ministry said that it would form an advisory board in the United States.
A. This is correct. Upon my recommendation, an advisory board would be created, with the participation of travel management companies, people who can advise on the current states of affairs in tourism and what the American market wants to see and hear to increase tourism to Greece. What Greece offers and what Greece lacks.
I did a lot of hard work, I submitted names to the vice Minister of Tourism George Nikitiadis and unfortunately it went nowhere. The temporary GNTO director in New York, Chrysanthos Petsilas has quickly sent out a letter asking people to join the advisory board and it seemed to me that were conflicting interests. At the end nothing was done.
Q. On the financial aspects. Euro is 15% lower this year, hotel prices are dropping and there are bargains available, even air fares dropped in major airliners. Is anything that could be done to promote these facts and have a positive effect? Because I don’t think we had such big turmoil or even any protests outside Athens.
A. There wasn’t really a problem even inside Athens, even at the height of the demonstrations; these were centered few blocks on Syntagma Square. With the exception of the taxi strikes and the blockage of cruise ships that had of course a strong negative impact.
People who want to go to Greece anyway, they don’t stop in Athens, but they take immediately their connecting flight to the islands or elsewhere. But, the environment in Greece is negative. People are depressed. There are groups that don’t care about tourism but only themselves. They want to make a statement about their pensions’ cuts, because they are unemployed etc.
There is another factor. It doesn’t do well to Greece when you hear every day for people getting robbed. In the last six months 22.000 arrests have been made for theft and 25 Greeks were killed in robberies. Yet, in the United States we have a murder every couple of minutes and that is not a big deal. The problem lies with the Greek media which is unaccustomed with these types of crimes. They take a murder and hump on it for days. Finally the CNN, the BBC and others pick it up; people with relatives in Greece receive the messages in the United States. Everyone knows a Greek somewhere and at the end everyone says that Greece has a serious crime problem.
On the financial matter now, there is no question there are some values out there. Unfortunately Greece is the victim of its own politics, because right now all you have is Delta Airlines, one plane going non-stop to Athens. As for Continental it took its plane from there sending it to Istanbul. And then you have USAir from Philadelphia, using a small plane. So, the first problem is whether people want to go to Greece and the second problem that you have limited capacity to fly to Greece.
Q. How about the question about withdrawing from Euro?
A. The fact that they are reading the papers saying Greece might leave Eurozone or even Europe and that the “radical left” – as they describe Tsipras – will take Greece back to drachma is hearting the image of the country.
I have mentioned previously the “Golden Dawn” issue. People of color don’t want to go to Greece fearing they will be confused with the illegal immigrants and receive abuse from the Golden Dawn.
There are so many things working against Greece, including the fact there is no government. Now, there was an interesting article in Reuters, stating that even if the ND party wins this is not enough to stabilize the situation. Because they will be considered as the old guard that got us into this and the younger generation will raise protests. On the other hand it was saying that if the “radical left” wins” the “radical right” will protest. All these contribute to a negative image.
Q. So, even though there will emerge a government on Monday, this will not be enough.
A. If I was advising at this point the Greek government, I would say that what people want to see a government elected, a smooth transition and a process of negotiations with troika. Most importantly, look at investments and how to put money into Greece that is the fifth year of recession.
Only if Samaras win – because if SYRIZA wins forget it – and is able to form a government with his partners, you may see a change in the environment, the Stock Markets go up etc. This will create a positive spin not only for Greece but the whole Europe.
In this case, if we are smart enough in Greece, we will support the new government and work with it, without protests and public unrest. Then we may push a message in the international media, like, we invented Democracy, we went through Democracy, things are fine now, so come to Greece and get your savings. Because then the value of what the tourist gets will be fantastic, if you tie with it a 20% – 30% discount, the value of Euro etc. It’s possible to succeed such a goal in a couple of weeks.