By Costas Onishenko
The large entrance of the Solomou Hotel on the central Athens street of the same name is dimly lit. The tables in the restaurant are clean, but empty. On one wall, a large mural of Athena flanked by two columns is kitsch but apparently the guests like it.
“Well, they used to like it,” says hotel owner Yiannis Grapsas. “We don’t get tourists anymore.”
All of the rooms in the Solomou have been closed off, their electricity and water supplies disconnected.
“I’d have to see what I could do if someone should come in asking for a room,” Grapsas tells Kathimerini.
A man walks into the hotel, a middle-aged Greek who looks somewhat frazzled.
“How much would your cheapest room cost for a month?” he asks the hotelier, only to be told that none is available.
“I could open a room up for you, but I can’t commit to a whole month because the hotel may close down any day now,” Grapsas tells the potential client. “It’s not because I’m bored sitting here all by myself all day, but because I haven’t paid the electricity bill and may be cut off.”
Grapsas has already let go of his staff, explaining that his son used to come in for a few hours a day to help out. “It was pointless though. He stopped coming here and took a job as a cab driver. He’s not making any money there either, but at least he’s doing something,” Grapsas says.
The 41 hotels that have been forced to close down in the past three years in crisis-hit Athens are not just a number; they represent 41 stories of businesspeople struggling to survive – and failing – and of hundreds of employees left out of work.
The reason why business for hotels in the capital is going from bad to worse, according to the head of the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels, Giorgos Tsakiris, is not just the crisis, but also the rising cost of airline tickets to Greece (Athens International Airport is considered an expensive airport by carriers) and the poor image of the city.
“We need some kind of coordinating body tasked with dealing with the city’s problems without the obstacle of jurisdiction and red tape. The city needs to be saved, and soon,” says Tsakiris.
The crisis aside, many of the hotels in Athens that have shut down are victims of urban degradation and rising crime in the city center, according to hoteliers.
“Tourists staying at a hotel in the center wanting to get to the National Archaeological Museum or even the Acropolis Museum have to go through streets that are depressing and dangerous. They need to cross Omonia Square, Patission Street and Tritis Septemvriou. Would you pay good money to stay at a place like this?”
Costas Avrambos has already been forced to close one of his hotels in central Athens and is now working the reception desk at a second unit he owns and is struggling to keep open.
“Other hoteliers receive money from their guests. We often do the opposite because several of our guests have been robbed or mugged. So instead of taking money from them, we end up giving them money so they can go back home,” says Avrambos.
Looking at the area around the hotel, which is on Tritis Septemvriou Street, it is easy to see that the owner is not exaggerating. Prostitutes stand on every corner in the middle of the day, watched by their pimps. There are drug addicts everywhere, many of them in very bad shape. This is certainly no place for a family vacation.
Just a few meters further down from the Solomou Hotel, the situation is even more dire as it is a notorious hangout for drug addicts who shoot up in the open, often collapsing on the ground, and get into fights.
Grapsas and Avrambos are just two of dozens of hoteliers suffering the consequences of the degradation of central Athens. Their crisis is not just financial. It is a crisis of inadequacy on the part of the political and state leadership to transform Athens into a capital of European standards.