The last time more than 85,000 people passed through Athens International Airport, many of them were disappointed Liverpool fans nursing sore heads and sunburned backs.
Until July 27 this year, the airport’s busiest day was May 24, 2007. It was the day after the Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool in Athens. The Italian side won the game 2-1 but the English fans had a far greater presence in the city, enjoying the weather and quenching their thirst.
The fact that this record has been broken is a positive sign for Greece’s tourism industry. In May 2007, more than 60,000 people attended Europe’s top soccer match and thousands more came to Athens in the hope of finding a ticket for the game or just soaking up the atmosphere. Athens has not held such a major one-off event since then but on July 27 this year, 85,987 people passed through the city’s airport, beating the previous record after more than 10 years by about 700 passengers.
A total of 2.37 million passengers passed through Athens airport in July, which is an increase of 7.7 percent compared to the same month in 2016. The first seven months of the year saw just over 11 million people – about 7 million taking international flights – use the airport. That’s 8.2 percent up on the same period a year earlier.
There was a similar story at Greece’s regional airports, 14 of which are now managed by the consortium led by Germany’s Fraport. At the privately run airports, passenger arrivals were up 14.1 percent on last year by the end of July.
In contrast, though, the number of cruise ship passengers disembarking at Greek ports was disappointing. Kathimerini reported last week that between January and July this year, there was a 39.4 percent drop in the number of cruise liner passengers at Iraklio, Crete. On Rhodes, arrivals were down by 10.9 percent in the first six months of the year, dropping to 98,127. Santorini has also seen a decline.
Industry experts put this decline down to the fact that some cruise companies have taken Turkish destinations off their itineraries due to security concerns and Greek ports are also being skipped as the vessels head off to other destinations.
However, so far this year the overall data has been encouraging. According to the most recent data available from the Bank of Greece, the country’s travel receipts at the end of May stood at 2.07 billion euros for the year, which is a 0.9 percent increase on the first five months of 2016.
The slight increase in receipts is a result of the uptick in arrivals. Between January and May, there were 4.58 million arrivals, an increase of 2.4 percent on the same period last year. Arrivals from European Union member-states improved by 6.1 percent to 3.01 million, while those from non-EU countries decreased by 4 percent to 1.57 million. The biggest rise, 20.8 percent, was in German visitors.
The breakdown of the travel revenues revealed that receipts from visitors who came from EU countries rose by 5.4 percent to 1.28 billion, while those from non-EU countries fell by 6.4 percent to 688.7 million. Visitors from France accounted for the biggest increase, which came to 19.4 percent.
Overall for 2017, the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE) is forecasting another record year in terms of arrivals. Greece is expected to host about 26 million people, which is more than a million extra tourists (a rise of almost 5 percent) than in 2016. Travel receipts are also expected to increase by around 1 billion and end up somewhere close to 14.5 billion.
However, there is one figure that remains a concern. Despite the overall encouraging picture regarding arrivals, bar the decline in cruise passengers, Greece still faces the challenge of ensuring that those who do come to visit also spend accordingly. The data indicates that although Greece is not having any problems convincing people to visit, it is less successful in getting them to part with their money. Between January and May this year, the average expenditure per trip fell by 1.5 percent to 430 euros.
A recent report by National Bank of Greece (NBG) highlighted how the country could be getting more out of its tourism industry in terms of revenue. According to the calculations done by the bank’s experts, Greece could add another 5 billion euros to its tourism takings each year if it makes the necessary adjustments.
The report points out, for instance, that the tourism season in Greece is far too short in comparison with its competitors. Concentrating only on the June to September period means that overall hotel occupancy rates in Greece stand at 27 percent compared to 40 percent at rival destinations, according to NBG’s research.
The National Bank of Greece study also points out that the average tourist spends close to 70 euros a day in Greece, which is 15 percent lower than average spending in the nearest competitor country.
One of the reasons for this, according to the research, is that there has been a sizable increase in the proportion of arrivals from countries in Southeastern Europe (from 4 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2016). Visitors from these countries have less spending power than those from other destinations. Tourists from Asia, North America and Russia, for example, spend an average of between 94 and 99 euros per day.
The report also argues that an increase in hotel investment (it suggests 1.2 billion euros a year) would allow Greek hoteliers to attract wealthier customers. This means hotels could charge more but would also lead to tourists who are able to spend greater amounts visiting the country, creating a positive knock-on effect for other businesses linked to accommodation.
Despite the encouraging signs, it is clear that there is still much potential for Greek tourism to grow and to become more profitable. To do this, though, it needs investment, ambition, building on strengths and a clear plan. It is a similar formula to the one needed to win the Champions League.