COMMENT

Our only hope

Tourism accounts for about 18 percent of Greece's gross domestic product and employs one in five workers, so whatever happens in this sector will play a decisive role in the country's efforts to curb its deficits and lower its debts. In 2009, the first recession in 16 years in Greece saw tourist arrivals drop by about 8 percent, beating expectations of a 15-20 percent drop. The other two mainstays of the Greek economy are also suffering: Shipping has been hit by the global downturn and construction is suffocating due to the credit squeeze and a glut of housing. Unemployment climbed to 9.8 percent in October, from 9.1 percent the previous month. Banks and businesses (large, medium, small and very small) are suffering because of the recession, the credit squeeze, the lower spending power of consumers and so on. The labor minister declared this week that there isn't enough money to pay out unemployment benefits and he is in a continual scramble to find money for the latest pension payment. Everywhere we look the situation is terrible. Everywhere a great effort will have to be made to get Greece to move forward. Unlike many other countries that were hit by acute economic crises, Greece can neither devalue its currency, being a member of the eurozone, nor does it have the production base or agricultural produce that will allow it to sell enough products to dig itself out of the hole. Tourism will have to carry a large part of the burden, in spite of all the problems caused by the global crisis and Greece's endemic weaknesses. And 2010 will be a seminal year in this regard. According to initial reports (see pages 4-5), Greece's two biggest markets - Germany and Britain - seem likely to stabilize at last year's figures. This looks encouraging, suggesting that the damage can be contained. The problem is that last year many hoteliers had cut prices so much that they could not make a profit from the prices paid by customers, forcing them to depend on government help to stay afloat. This means that the business model has to be changed. Add to this the fact that development of hotels and resorts is at a standstill and the closure of a third of the National Tourism Organization's overseas offices and it appears that Greece is in the tourism doldrums and is making little effort to promote itself and to make money. At the same time, Turkey, Egypt and other Mediterranean countries that are outside the eurozone and who do not have the EU's visa requirements are attracting ever greater numbers of visitors. The message from Greece's traditional tourism markets is that customers need great value for money in order to come. But cutting prices to such an extent that hotels are no longer viable is not the solution. Some hoteliers have taken the initiative of transforming their hotels, turning two or three separate rooms into suites, adding a private pool and other luxuries. According to initial reports, this has helped boost revenues by attracting higher-paying customers. That is one way forward - promoting Greece as a luxury destination. For that to work, though, a national effort has to be made: The country must not be dotted with garbage; its airport facilities must be improved and everyone involved in the service industries should behave as if they finally realize that their livelihood depends on making visitors happy. Another focus should be the improvement of the country's image and the clever exploitation of the image created by films and Greece's cultural heritage. Let's not forget that mass tourism took off after the global success of the film «Zorba the Greek» in 1964. «My Big Fat Greek Wedding» and «Mamma Mia!» gave Greece another boost, as did the success of the Athens 2004 Olympics. The burning of Athens in December 2008 and the childish «terrorism» of our disaffected youth work in the other direction. Someone has to shape this image - and that someone is every citizen and every official at the local and government level. That is the cheapest way to solve our problems - and the most difficult one as well.

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