The Olympic Games have arrived, but where are the tourists? Visitor numbers are down, leaving shop owners wondering whether things will turn around. Many blame negative press coverage for the low turnout.
Some think reports that the stadium was unfinished kept visitors away
The fan is humming loudly in Adrianos Travel, blowing cool air across the empty chairs in front of the desk of Georgakarakos Panagiotis.
The Olympic Games are three days away, the tourism season is at its supposed high point, but that's not evident in Pangiotis’ office. Around 200 people have come into his office today, asking questions on the tours he organizes to the Greek islands. But nobody is buying.
"This is the worst season in the last 35 years," says Pangaiotis, matter-of-factly. "And we’re on the busiest road."
Greek tourism is experiencing a low in the most unlikely of years. The Olympic Games have returned to their birthplace in Athens and brought with them dreams of profit and free publicity for the country’s tourist organizations. But the hundreds of thousands of international tourists have so far failed to materialize. Some estimates report that tourism is down almost 10 percent in some areas of Greece from the year before -- bad news for a country in which tourism makes up 18 percent of the gross domestic product.
Fewer tourists than expected have been visiting Athens
One of the country’s top cultural officials admitted recently that not enough had been done to project Greece’s image internationally. "There should have been a properly designed Olympic campaign. There isn't," Fani Palli-Petralia, Greece’s Alternate Cultural Minister told the newspaper To Vima in an interview recently.
Blame the media
Construction delays were prominent in the media
Instead, Greek organizers have taken a beating in the international media because of all the construction delays and security concerns leading up to the Games. Panagiotis says the bad press is one of the major reasons his business is sluggish.
"We used to go from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at this time in the past few years," he said. "This year, it’s a disaster. CNN and BBC made the worst business for us."
The labyrinth-like streets in tourist neighborhoods like Plaka and Monastiraki, where Pangiotis has his agency, are noticeably less busy than in previous years. Shop owners stand in their doorways, half-heartedly hawking "authentic" Greek urns, Olympic towels or Greek soccer jerseys.
"Business is bad, tourist numbers are low," said Michael Pachalides, whose father runs a shop selling Greek antiques in Monastiraki.
Pachilides attributes the problem to a mixture of bad publicity in the run-up to the Games and higher prices. "(Tourists) think Greece is too expensive because of the Olympics," he said.
Hotel room prices, some jacked up by eager owners in hopes of a tourist rush, have instead chased away many potential visitors. About 5,000 Athens' hotel beds are empty, just a week before the start of the Games, according to the city’s hotelier's association.
"I think many people in Greece, many shop owners, tried to take advantage by raising the price," said Nikos Vlachos, who runs an antique and candle shop in Monastiraki.
Vlachos estimates that sales this year are 30-40 percent of last year. "I’m not sure if something will change," says Vlachos, whose family has run the shop for more than 60 years. "It’s a lot less than we thought."
Hoping for a change
Hardly any lines at Olympic ticket windows
Like others, however, Vlachos is placing his hope in the coming weeks. With many international media and visitors arriving only in the last few days, the opportunity for a turn-around remains. Though still more than half of the 5.3 million event tickets are available, organizers report that ticket offices have been doing a brisk business this week. Lines at many offices remain long, with some reporting at least an hour-long wait.
All of the sites appear ready and workers in the city of Marousi, home to the Olympic complex, have been working around the clock to re-pave streets, hang some of the 7,000 colorful Olympic banners covering the city, and clean away building material.
"I think we will have a very, very good Olympic Games," said Vlachos. "I think that Greek people have this special spark (in getting things done). It’s almost like magic."