ECONOMY

Greece plays the Olympics card

Greece will use the occasion of the 2004 Athens Olympics to attract more foreign investment, Hellenic Center for Investment Chairman Costas Bakouris announced yesterday. The new program, «Greece: A Winner’s Choice,» and the Athens Business Club, an online, members-only portal designed to bring businessmen together and offering specialized services, will be presented to businessmen and media at Salt Lake City, where the 19th Winter Olympics will be taking place from February 8-24. Australia had tried something similar ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Business Club Australia, which ended up with 18,000 members. ELKE’s target is for the Athens Business Club to reach 25,000 members. The Athens Business Club will offer complete data on the Greek economy, by sector, with investment opportunities pointed out and a special help line, available to members. Besides its online presence – at www.athensbusinessclub.gr – the club will also rent office space during the 2004 Olympics. In almost six years of operation, ELKE has helped attract over 500 million euros’ worth of foreign investment, which, according to Bakouris, is far below Greece’s potential. In 2001, it helped implement investments worth 265 million euros, but only 25 percent came from foreign firms. The main obstacles to higher foreign investment in Greece are high taxes, bureaucracy, a complex web of laws and insufficient progress in structural reforms, including privatizations, labor market and social security reforms. The hesitant steps in this sector have also contributed toward keeping Greece’s creditworthiness a few notches lower than that of its European Union partners. The government has now promised to present new laws on investment and business incentives by the end of the first half of 2002. «We hope that ELKE’s role will become more effective in the future… We will be judged on our effectiveness in rendering clear the message that the rules of the game have changed,» said Bakouris. Both of these programs will cost approximately $1.5 million and their cost will be partly covered by sponsors. ELKE does not plan to interfere in the construction of infrastructure related to the Olympics; this is the job of Athens 2004, the Games organizers. Rather, it attempts to take advantage of the added interest in Greece and the windfall from what it hopes will be a successful Olympics. The areas that could be of particular interest to foreign investors, according to Bakouris, are tourism, aquaculture, energy and high-tech. For an organization that hopes to play a pivotal role in Greece’s economy, ELKE has quite a small staff of only 22. It operates as a private company, not as a state company. And it plans to remain a small, efficient operation «unless our role changes radically,» Bakouris told Kathimerini in an interview last fall.