Missing out on 5 million cruise tourists per year

Greece is missing out on a sharp upswing in the Mediterranean cruise market due to projectionist shipping practices, tourism industry leaders warned yesterday. Yiannis Evangelou, president of the Greek Association of Travel Agencies, said Greece is losing out on up to 5 million tourists a year and hundreds of millions of euros through failure to lure cruise ship companies to establish a base in Greek ports. After a slump caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA, the cruise industry is now attracting an estimated 11 million clients worldwide. About 3.2 million of these are in Europe. The Mediterranean, with its wide mix of cultures and ancient sites, could soon rival the Caribbean as the world’s favorite cruise destination, Evangelou said. He identified continuing restrictions on overseas companies and difficulties in maintaining services in about 240 mainland and island ports as key problems. The European Union liberalized the coastal shipping market in 1992, but allowed Greece and other countries a long phase-in period. But by preventing non-EU flagged ships from being based here, Greece is losing a great deal of cruise-related business a year, Evangelou said. Thirty years ago, «Athens not Miami was the heart of the business,» industry analyst Tony Peisley said. Now the latter is a home base for the world’s biggest operators, such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival. And in the Mediterranean, Greece is losing out to Italy, Spain, Turkey and other countries that have abandoned protectionism. Greece, a maritime superpower, draws just 14,000 cruise clients annually, even though hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers pass through Greek ports in transit each year. Ports near Athens, such as Piraeus and Lavrion, «are ideally situated to becoming home ports for cruising in the Mediterranean… Why then do we not grab the opportunity?» said Gerasimos Fokas, head of Greece’s hoteliers’ association. Tourism is a vital industry for Greece, and the country has experienced bumper years following infrastructure improvements made for the 2004 Olympics and security threats in rival markets. Among other recommended improvements are increasing services for passengers in transit, modernized port areas and more cruise-specific services. Should Greece open Piraeus for round-trip voyages, said Larry Pimentel of SeaDream cruises at a Piraeus forum last week, «it could well become the busiest turnaround point in the region.» Greece, with 11 million inhabitants, expects 14 million tourists this year and Tourism Minister Fanni Palli-Petralia declared last week that the government is aiming for 19 million in 2007. «A huge economic game is going on right outside our door. How will we play it?» Evangelou concluded. (AP)