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Tourism in times of crisis: Greece hopes, worries

The island of Crete in Greece is dependent on tourism and pictures of violent protests in Athens have done little to encourage visitors to come to Greece. The industry is holding its breath about this season.

A half-empty beach on Crete

Crete's residents hope the beaches will fill up in summer

High above the ruins of the Bronze Age palace of Festos on Crete, Greece's largest island, there are only a handful of tourists to be seen. But during the high-season months of July and August, the masses come and it's hard to even move up here.

Today, though, most of the visitors are German, including a young couple from Bavaria visiting the island for the first time.

"We considered what we would do if rioting broke out here, but everything's been very peaceful so far," says the young man. His girlfriend adds that if things had seemed out of control, they would have gone instead to Lake Garda in northern Italy.

The next bay over is Agia Galini, a fishing village of 400 inhabitants that receives around 4,000 visitors in high season. The blue-and-white houses are nestled in the cliffs above the water, as is the Ariadne Hotel.

Its pool is empty, the bar deserted and Wolfgang and Simone from Hamburg have the terrace all to themselves. They also saw the pictures of the violent demonstrations in Athens before they got on the plane for their holiday.

"To be honest, it upset us a little bit," Simone says. "I was worried about traveling to a country in crisis and had something of a bad conscience about it."

She adds: "But staying away doesn't help anything, especially since tourism is so important for the economy here."

Don't mention the crisis

Tourism is responsible for almost one-fifth of the Greece's gross domestic product. A million visitors come to Crete every year, although this year those numbers could drop dramatically, experts say.

So far, Wolfgang and Simone haven't noticed real signs of crisis on the picturesque island, although, according to Wolfgang, the crisis comes to mind when they see an empty restaurant or tourist site or people who seem somewhat melancholy.

Empty tables in a restaurant

No reservation is required at this restarant

His wife agrees and says they would have liked to talk to Greeks about it. "But they don't talk to us at all," she says. "I think the Greeks themselves have a tendency to put a gloss on it."

Nikos, the Ariadne's director, is nearby, relaxed in his casual cargo pants. But upon hearing the word "crisis," he tenses up, and then just refuses to talk about it.

"Why? It's not necessary," he says with annoyance. "It's not good to talk about problems. We enjoy our lives. We're happy."

Stable prices

But happy is not an adjective most would use to describe Greece these days, and even Nikos feels the effects of the crisis on his island.

Prices in Greece are rising. Cigarettes, which once cost 3.40 euros a pack are now 3.80. Alcohol and gas are more expensive now and the value-added tax rate was recently raised to 23 percent.

Despite all that, Nikos doesn't want to raise his own prices. It's a sentiment one hears everywhere on the island.

"Politicians' game"

Now below the cliff, the tiny alleyways of the fishing village are filled with tables covered with bright tablecloths But only about half of them are occupied.

On the leafy balcony of the Pantheon restaurant, a visitor hears German, Dutch and Greek-accented English being spoken.

Nikos of the Pantheon restaurant

Nikos of the Pantheon restaurant doesn't like to talk about the crisis

Gray-haired Nikos greets visitors with a hearty handshake, makes jokes, chats and serves Greek specialties like souvlaki and moussaka, which can be had for about eight euros.

A couple of German students ask him about the crisis, but he waves them off.

"It's all just a politicians' game. We, the little people, don't have a role in that at all," he says. "They just want our money, our taxes."

He's also afraid the crisis could affect his business, so he is also keeping his prices right where they are.

The blame game

Next door in a travel and car-rental agency, Michalis is taking a quick nap at his desk. He's worked in the travel business for years and is not easily stirred from his afternoon break, even by a financial meltdown. To him, civil servants are the ones to blame for Greece's financial woes.

A shopping street, empty

Will the tourists come in July and August, despite the crisis?

"There are a million of them and it's insane. They earn crazy amounts of money and do no work," he says.

He points to pictures on the wall of his young colleagues, whose beginning salary is about 700 euros per month. Civil servants, on the other hand, make about 2,000 euros a month starting out.

What will he do in the face of Greece's economic calamity? Nothing, he says, but sit it out and hope that the tourists come in the busy months of July and August. He'll also keep his prices where they are now, since if he raises them, he fears holidaymakers will decide to go to Spain or Turkey.

In this time of uncertainty, he can be sure of at least one thing. Because of the higher tax rate, profits will definitely be down.

Author: Miriam Klaussner (jam)
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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