ECONOMY

Stars align to send Greek tourism figures soaring

A variety of factors contributed to the impressive rise in tourist traffic this summer season, which is expected to hit a record high of 16.5 million visitors by the end of the year.

The main reason is without doubt the political unrest in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, which compelled thousands of tourists who traditionally travel to destinations such as Egypt and Morocco to seek safer holidays in places including Greece and its main competitors Turkey, Spain and Cyprus.

Meanwhile, another contributing factor to the boom this season was the agreement by hoteliers to keep their prices competitive despite the current difficulties, as well as the government?s decision to decrease value-added tax on accommodation, both moves that made Greece attractive in terms of cost.

Also, a number of external factors positively affected the local tourism industry. For example, speeding up the visa-issuing process for visitors from new origin markets such as Russia resulted in a major influx of visitors from that country, as did the launch of a major campaign to promote Greece as a destination in Israel and a decision to make it easier for Green Passport-holding Turks to come to Greece.

However, things were not so rosy regarding domestic tourism, which saw a significant slump in accord with the economic crisis and people?s shrinking budgets. According to official figures, Greeks cut back significantly on the number of destinations they visited this summer, on the number of days they took off for vacations and on their holiday spending.

Another major factor that contributed to the growth in foreign visitors was the significant increase in the number of charter and low-budget flights to Greece from abroad, and especially to the country?s most popular holiday destinations.

The islands of Rhodes and Kos, for example, which lead in the number of charter flights they receive each year, respectively enjoyed rises of 28.3 and 26.2 percent in the seven months from April through October this year compared to last. Meanwhile, other destinations around the country started making a concerted effort before the start of the season to attract more low-budget and charter flights, including the Ionian island of Corfu, the region of Magnesia in central Greece and the northern port city of Thessaloniki.

Cruise ship tourism has also seen a good year, according to the data, despite the fact that Greece has not fully lifted cabotage in accordance with requests by major cruise operators that want to use Greek ports as the start and end points of their cruises.

According to official figures, the number of cruise ships that sailed into the port of Piraeus in the first six months of 2011 rose by 5.1 percent compared to last year, while the number of passengers leaped from 80,000 to 139,000, or 72.9 percent, in the same period.

Meanwhile, the port of Katakolo in the western Peloponnese welcomed 460 cruise ships in the January-August period this year, compared to 360 in the same period in 2010, and Rhodes saw a 1.8 percent increase in the number of tourists from cruises who visited the island in the same period compared to last year. In fact, it is estimated that by the end of 2011, some 600,000 cruise tourists will have visited the southeastern Aegean island.