Greek Tour Operators Assess Impact of Violent Athens Demonstrations
Greece has officially enacted a series of severe austerity measures imposed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. That move has led to a series of demonstrations and some rioting in the country’s capital city of Athens. That, in turn, has affected the travel industry, which is once again dealing with the repercussions of those demonstrations, as it did to similar uprisings in Athens last October.
For tourism stakeholders, including tour operators in the U.S., television images of burning buildings in central Athens were not welcome sights. Still, there was some optimism among Greek tour operators here in the U.S. “This is the beginning of the booking season,” said Nikos Tsakanikas, president of Homeric Tours. “The demonstrations will have an impact for the next two to four days, but as cooler heads prevail in Athens, I think business will return to normal in the U.S. and other markets.”
According to the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO), last year, which was also marred by Greek civil strife, was the second best ever for Greece as the combination of lifted cabotage laws on Greek cruising, turmoil in competing countries due to the Arab Spring, low prices in Greece, and “Grecophile” films like “Mama Mia” and TV shows like “America’s Top Model” boosted the number of visitors to Greece. About 530,000 Americans visited last year, a 4 percent increase. Greece had a good year by most accounts, despite mass demonstrations last summer in Athens that were also tainted by violence.
Homeric Tours said it experienced gains, especially at its hotel on the island of Mykonos. “Our revenues from that hotel were up 14 percent last year,” said Tsakanikos. “2011 was a good, not a great, but a good year for Greece.”
Not everybody is as positive about Greek prospects in 2012, however. “There’s a lot going on throughout the Eastern Mediterranean in terms of political instability,” said Koray Edeman, president of Key Tours. “The situation in Greece only makes things worse. Our Greek business went down last year.”
But Constantine Georgiadis, vice president and general manager of Amphitrion Holidays, noted that business returned to normal after the protests in Athens in 2011. “Since January, the calls have been positive,” he said. “When I came in this morning, I expected to find some frantic emails, but I didn’t. Over the last few months some people have asked if Greece goes bankrupt, will they lose their vacations. I tell them countries are not companies. They don’t close their doors. If we can just achieve some stability in the next few weeks, things will be fine and I believe Greece will stabilize, because most Greeks support the austerity plan, difficult though it is. Right now there’s a small element in these demonstrations that’s trying to incite violence.”
Is Greece safe for travelers? “The focus of these demonstrations is a three-to four-block area in Athens around Syntagma (Constitution) Square where the Parliament is located,” said Tsakanikos. “I don’t book my passengers in Syntagma Square hotels. I use the InterContinental, the Marriott, the Hilton and others.”
If travelers feel secure in going to Greece, it may turn out to be a good year for prices. The exchange rates are favorable for travel and the fallout between Greece and Germany may result in lots of vacant capacity as the German traveler may skip Greece altogether. “In my 28 years of selling Greece, I’ve never seen this many hotel deals,” said Georgiadis. “I’ve got two employees in Athens hunting down these deals. Now is a great time to book.” On the other hand, airfares may still pose a barrier as airlines raise prices due to higher fuel costs.
Nevertheless, Greek tour operators do believe tourism will be back strong despite the recent unrest. “Just give it a little time,” said Georgiadis. “Things will stabilize and some people will come and, of course, some won’t, but I expect a normal year in 2012. If your clients want their vacation dollar to help stabilize the economy, tell them to go to Greece.”
With all of these issues, Greece could use a strong and clear voice from its tourist office, but the New York office of the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) has had challenges taking command of the situation due to a limited budget. “The emergence of social media has been a big help to us and our new offices in Manhattan give us a lot more room to host events for travel agents and wholesalers,” said Chrysanthos Petsilas, director of the GNTO in New York. “The returns from our campaign on social media came back 50 percent from the U.S. This year I believe we’ll be able to do some road shows, host some fam trips and events for travel agents. We need to gather our strength for 2013.”