Even Greeks shun their islands as crisis bites

Agence France-Presse
Already faced with foreigners staying away, Greece's sun-kissed islands are now experiencing the final insult: a collapse in domestic tourism

AEGINA ISLAND, Greece (AFP) – Already faced with foreigners staying away, Greece’s sun-kissed islands are now experiencing the final insult: a collapse in domestic tourism.

And for those dependent on tourism for their livelihoods on Aegina, an island reached by hovercraft and best known for its pistachios — said to be Greece’s tastiest — the situation is even worse.

“First we lost the foreigners, now we are losing the Greeks. This is a disaster,” says Elias, 50, the manager of the Tropical Club beachside restaurant also renting out sunloungers and umbrellas to sunbathing Greek families.

“People don’t spend as much money as before. And we have to pay more taxes,” he told AFP.

Ten years ago, the island had more foreign visitors than Greeks paddling in its crystal-clear waters and eating its fresh fish, but then the construction of a new airport in Athens drove flights elsewhere, locals say.

“In the past decade, we’ve had more Greeks than foreigners, like 70-to-30 percent. But in the past two years, with the crisis, Greeks don’t come either,” said Elias, cheery nevertheless behind his sunglasses and under his straw hat.

A drop in tourism, which accounts for 15 percent of national economic output, is the last thing the country needs as it endures its fifth straight year of recession and tough austerity cuts in return for two international bailouts.

Spooked by the prospect of violence returning to the streets of Greece after elections this Sunday, the number of tourists arriving at Greek airports was five percent lower in the five months to May.

The fear is that the all-important summer season will be a washout, with foreigners preferring to sunbathe and sightsee in a country not facing the prospect of being forced out of the eurozone.

Domestic tourism, which makes up 25 percent of the all-important sector, has already suffered from the downturn.

“Domestic tourism is doing even worse than tourism by foreigners because of the collapse in Greek incomes,” said George Telonis, head of the Greek travel agents association HATTA.

High on a hill at Aegina’s Temple of Aphaea, takings are down, for example.

“We have half the number of tourists we used to have five or six years ago, around 200 a day versus 500 before,” said Dionysis Bitros, 51, selling four-euro ($5) entry tickets to look around the 2,500-year-old site.

“Tourists don’t have money any more. Some ask about the price of the ticket and they walk away. I also think tourists are afraid.”

Those Greek tourists who do come have less money to spend, with state employees having seen their salaries slashed as the government pulls out all the stops to try and reduce the biggest debt-to-output ratio in the eurozone.

“We came for the weekend, we are very happy. This year hotel and restaurants are cheaper than usual, but we have less money too,” said Maria, 40, from Athens as she and her husband Dimitris admired the ruins.

“We both work for the government. I work at the ministry of economy, my salary went down around 40 percent. I used to earn 2,000 euros a month, now it’s 1,300 euros.”

Like many Greeks, who at the last election in May voted in droves for parties opposed to more cuts, Dimitris, also 40, is angry: “We need another French revolution, a lot of heads need to be cut down. No blood, no change.”

“Times are very difficult. Bookings are down 45 percent compared to June last year,” said Vicky Chatsopoulou, 51, an employee at the clifftop Apollo Hotel, the biggest and swankiest on the island, with a commanding view of the sea.

Over at the Rastoni hotel near the port, where the owners of a line of horse-drawn carriages wait in vain for customers, things look bleak.

“Usually Greek people come on weekends. However this year they have no money and it’s very difficult,” says German-born manager Dagmar Besis, 54, married to a Greek and who has lived on Aegina for 25 years.

“Normally August is the Greek holiday but so far I have no bookings from Greeks. Now with the upcoming election nobody knows what will happen, everybody is keeping money they have left.” – Daphne Benoit, Agence France-Presse