Retsina and rip-offs: how Greek tourism was left in ruins

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The Independent Online
The Greek islands are half- empty. Parts of Athens look like a ghost town. Hotel owners are kicking their heels, restaurant waiters stand forlornly on street corners, and shopkeepers pounce on any stray passer-by with the voracity of a lion in a Roman circus.

The Greek tourism industry is having a disastrous summer, with revenues down at least 25 per cent on last year as millions of German, Dutch and British holidaymakers either flock to Greece's least favourite neighbour, Turkey, or take advantage of the blistering north European summer and stay at home.

But it is not just the vagaries of the weather or the whims of tourist fashion that are giving Greece its worst season for years. Ask any Greek to indulge in self-criticism about the welcome accorded to foreign holidaymakers, and you will be inundated with admissions that the country is expensive and full of rip-off merchants, that hotels are woefully below standard, that transport is a disaster, that food quality has declined, and that service comes not with a smile but with a surly grunt.

The Greek government points out defensively that 1995 is the first bad year after a steady rise in tourist revenues over the past five years. But there are signs of a longer-term decline. The average family spends only 10 days in Greece now as opposed to a fortnight five years ago. And, with the tourist market ever expanding, they are looking to stretch their budget further in Turkey, Egypt or Jordan.

"People in Greece have got complacent and think they can get away with murder, overcharging for taxis or claiming a hotel is by the sea when in fact it is a couple of miles away. No wonder people go to Turkey. The conditions are no worse and it is far cheaper," Drossoula Elliott, editor of the English-language monthly magazine the Athenian, said.

This does not sound much like the great idyll of sun-kissed beaches, of cheap retsina (local white wine) and Shirley Valentine-style romance that first attracted the tourists in the early Seventies. But then Greece can no longer afford to be a cheap and cheerful southern Balkan backwater as it tries to catch up with the European mainstream.

The tourist industry seems to have got stuck in the middle of the modernisation process. Consumer prices have jumped as much as tenfold in the past decade, reflecting a sharp rise in living standards for Greeks, but improvements in the country's infrastructure, services and tourism marketing have lagged far behind.

As Greece waits for a series of EC-sponsored public works projects to get off the ground, trains are painfully slow and motorways virtually non-existent. Boats are often overcrowded, while hired cars are extremely expensive. Hotels charge up to four-star prices but they very rarely provide more than two-star service.

Much of the tourist industry is still prey to a mentality that encourages time-serving rather than efficiency, corruption rather than public service and confrontational labour disputes rather than progress towards greater productivity. This summer, like most others, has thus been disrupted by air-traffic control strikes, constant delays at Olympic Airways, the national airline, and disputes on the shipping lines connecting Athens with the islands.

It is this mentality that caused the Greek Hoteliers' Association to overcharge foreign tour operators with such disregard for the consequences this year that it wound up with a flood of cancellations.

And it is this mentality that has turned the National Tourist Organisation into a bureaucratic sludge-pit in which employees spend much of their time reading the newspapers and organising free villa holidays for their friends over the telephone.

The organisation has tried to defend the high prices tourists are being charged by arguing that cheap holidays only attract cheap people, and that the chaos of a Greek holiday is all part of the charm of the place. But even senior employees admit, off the record, that this is nonsense.

"People are rude and charge far too much," one employee said. "A restaurant on Santorini where my brother owns some tourist flats treated us foully this year. If that's the reception we get in our positions, imagine what it's like for ordinary visitors."

There are, nevertheless, signs of improvement. Nikos Sifoun-akis, the dynamic new minister for tourism, has just replaced the president of the National Tourist Organisation and launched a series of initiatives to repair Greece's tattered reputation. He hopes to double the promotion budget for tourism - for example arranging a convention for foreign tourist operators in Athens in the next few days to try to win them back over.

Mr Sifounakis wants to restore his country's reputation as a cheap destination (it is still a bit cheaper than either Italy or Spain) while building proper facilities such as luxury yachting marinas for visitors with serious money.

The best hope for Greece, perhaps, is to emulate Italy or France - charging more than it used to but making sure that standards rise, too. In the meantime, ironically, it has become a wonderfully uncrowded place with plenty of deserted beaches. Sounds almost good enough for a holiday.