No room at the 2004 inn?

In the midst of pressing security concerns, serious construction delays, major road projects left hanging, talk of temporary or even emergency venue solutions, and bickering between Games organizers ATHOC and government officials, to speak of hotel accommodation at the Olympics seems almost like an indulgent flight of fancy by someone who can’t quite come to grips with the fact that the summer holidays are over and we’re back in the real working world, like it or not, which most of us probably don’t. The accommodation problem – not just more rooms but better ones too – was pointed out as a growing concern by the International Olympic Committee’s Coordination Commission, which met late last month here in Athens. Considering all the other matters needing attention at this point, the problem of hotel beds seems less than dire. And yet, the task of finding rooms for a huge influx of visitors – officials, fans, sponsors, athletes and their families and friends, IOC members, sundry VIPs, and even journalists (though they probably won’t get the chance to actually sleep in them much during that busy fortnight) – is non-reducible, unless these visitors choose to imitate Diogenes the Stoic and stay in barrels on Athenian sidewalks. Indeed, in many ways the housing question richly illustrates many of the broader dilemmas raised by the Athens 2004 Games, with all their concerns about multi-level cooperation, guesstimates of need, and leisure activities being coordinated with near-military precision. Keeping things flexible One problem lies in simply comprehending the nature of the issue, much less its level of urgency. More construction of any kind seems a pitiless and unnecessary assault on Athens’s few open spaces. Another perception problem is that a lack of hotels is not, on the face of it, one of the city’s more pressing concerns, despite the ban since 1986 (recently lifted) on building new ones. To many, it must be like saying the city needs more bakeries, or pharmacies, or funeral homes – all of which are in ample supply. A third is that Greece already attracts hordes of travelers – approximately 12.5 million to date this year, more than the country’s total population – and clearly they manage to sleep somewhere, as tourism can be a wonderfully flexible, if far from standardized, industry. Plans to house thousands on cruise ships in Piraeus actually seem enticing, even if such vessels will probably have security precautions as tight as drums. Still another issue is that, unlike organizing the ceremonies and operations (ATHOC’s job) or building venues (the ministries’ job), arranging accommodation needs careful coordination that can easily be put off, fall through the cracks, or get caught up in controversy. Serious problems arose in the summer when Aristotelis Divanis, head of the Athens Hoteliers’ Association, accused the government of favoring new hotel construction, especially by rezoning Maroussi, near the Olympics complex, rather than focusing on renovating existing facilities, and threatened to renege on the housing agreement. The Lascaridis Group, which runs several major facilities in Greece and has wanted to build more, responded with a colorful broadside of its own. Doubtless that particular feud is far from over. This problem, even more than many others being faced, is magnified manifold by the attacks of September 11, and the quantum leap in uncertainty it has imposed on the entire travel and tourism sector worldwide. Demand for travel and tourism is, in economic terms, highly elastic; it expands in direct relation to a growing economy, and contracts when times are tough – like now. This week, the International Air Transport Association estimated that 200,000 airline jobs would be lost worldwide; several national carriers have bit the figurative dust, notably Sabena and Swissair, while others big and small alike face highly uncertain futures, especially as the EU years ago ruled out additional state aids to the industry. And surely many more jobs will go from travel agencies, hotel companies, and others in the travel/tourism chain. There is simply no way to know whether the current slump, which was already under way before September 11 and is severely compounded by fear and uncertainty that determine personal choices and leisure time pursuits, will continue, worsen, or improve. The coming Winter Games at Salt Lake City will not be much of a gauge either for Athens 2004. It’s an old problem superimposed on a wholly new background, when all the old estimates of visitor numbers, rough as they already were, basically go out the window. Yet economic planners need figures to work with, even flawed ones. By August, an Olympic Hotel Agreement had apparently secured some 14,517 rooms for all these guests, with many applications before the National Tourism Organization to build more. Some estimates suggested that over 21,000 rooms will be needed in just the three top categories of hotel. But that was before September 11. A tough investment call Such problems are compounded in a time of economic retrenchment and heightened uncertainty, and Greece is being admonished to lure private sector investment in an industry that is already suffering grievously. But who is going to invest in a risky new enterprise dependent on travel, now or in the near future? The problem is twofold, because the purse strings are tight as it is, and the future represents an open book. The Ramadas, Hiltons and Intercontinentals of the world are not going to look sentimentally on Athens 2004, and will be looking even more carefully at the relative merits of building new hotels, especially the top-class ones that are being requested; we’re not talking about rooms for let here. It would take a brave chief executive to sign off on a major new hotel construction venture in Attica or anywhere else in the current climate. Much is being made by the likes of National Economy Minister Yiannos Papantoniou about Greece’s ability to avoid the worst of the global slump, with growth rates still expected around 4 percent, a healthy clip far exceeding that of its European partners. The Olympics construction boom (which is being assumed rather than merely hoped for) and the continued massive inflow from the EU’s structural funds are the reasons for the seeming complacency. But if there really is a serious, sustained drop in world travel, Greece could well find itself in a bind not of its own creation, under growing pressure from the IOC to provide new hotels for August 2004 that lead to serious long-term overcapacity problems, even if it solves Athens’s lack of large-capacity conference facilities fit for a major capital city. Clearly, this is far more than just an Olympic Games question. It also involves harmonizing Greece’s hotel sector with international standards, and, more fundamentally, it requires careful thinking about the future of Greece’s biggest and most lucrative industry. When the Games roll round, any excess room capacity would result in deep last-minute discounting for late-booking Games visitors; good for them, but problematic for everybody else. Otherwise, the mad pre-Games scramble to match beds with visitors will require all the ingenuity that hoteliers, government officials and ATHOC can muster. Just what the Athens 2004 organizers need; another headache.