Schools flock to Rhodes for spring break

The spring break season lasts for just three weeks each year. School buses arrive en masse at the port and airport, which are festooned with colorful banners and bustling with noise. The average age of visitors to the eastern island of Rhodes has plummeted to 17 as 18,000 pupils from all over Greece flock to the island. Rhodes is the most popular destination for spring break, which give the island’s economy a timely shot in the arm. It is also a dress rehearsal for the official season and an opportunity for a few seasoned players to turn a profit. Moneyspinner Compared with other destinations where pupils in their final year of senior high spend their traditional five-day break, Rhodes has a distinct advantage: short distances. «The longest trip is 46 kilometers to Lindos,» said travel agent Vangelis Bivolaris, who has been involved in school trips for 21 years. «All the other sites of archaeological and historical interest, like the Old City, Kamiros and Filermos, are within close range. «As the children get very little sleep after going out at night, long trips are inconvenient for them and an ordeal for their teachers. Crete, the second most popular destination with 9,000 visitors annually, doesn’t rely so much on five-day trips, because their tourist season starts earlier.» But Rhodes does rely on school trips and the local tourism industry does well from them. Apart from the average cost of participation of around 300 euros per person, each visitor spends another 200 euros during the five days, mainly on nightlife. And they pay in cash. On the way to the Grand Master’s palace I am surrounded by teenagers. «We’re leaving today. It was incredible. I can’t tell you how good it was. Look at this photo from the club last night. It was fantastic. We danced nonstop till 3 a.m. We had a DJ on the way back to the hotel, and that was wild. We can’t have slept one hour a day,» said Pantelis, one of 25 pupils from Irinoupoli Senior High School in Imatheia. «And the best part is that it cost us nothing. We held some dances at a club in the village, we ran a lottery and we made enough money to pay for all of us.» For the teachers escorting them, the race starts the minute they leave the school. «We really put our heads on the block,» said Thanassis Skoufas, leader of the excursion from Epanomi Technical School in Thessaloniki. «I believe that if a teacher wants to have real communication with the children and their trust, you don’t earn that solely in the classroom. And the five-day spring break is part of school life.» Iraklis Iakovou, principal of the Third Senior High School of Aegaleo, has been accompanying final-year pupils on such trips for 20 years. «All year you have a certain relationship with the pupils, and that relationship changes on the break. To our great satisfaction we see a sense of responsibility from the pupils.» Nightlife highlife The young travelers see good nightlife as the key to a good spring break. Most would rather skip the daily tours of archaeological sites. Around 10 a.m., when the coaches leave the hotels, the teenagers in the lobby can barely keep their eyes open. «Of the 50 people I had on the tour, I doubt that more than 10-15 were listening,» commented a tour guide I met a little later on the Acropolis at Lindos. «Why tell them about Cleobulus of Rhodes when their minds are on the nightclub they went to? What you see is a well-oiled industry that wins over school committees and makes money at the expense of the children and their parents.» Some people do make money out of school trips. Why else would Rhodes have venues that are used for different purposes but are transformed into nightclubs for just three weeks a year, during the brief school trip season? And why else would restaurants offer lower-quality service that they wrap us as «special discounts for pupils?» It is odd that tavernas in the Old City that have live music every night have school menus starting at five euros per head. At least this year, steps have been taken to ensure that nightclubs comply with the limits on capacity allowed by their licenses. Pupils must be counted at the entrance to avoid the overcrowding that occurred in the past. The pupils also party on at their hotels. Most of the hotels are in Ixia and Faliraki, and have worked with school groups for the past four or five years. Before the tourist season starts, they open in order to cater exclusively for school groups. «The long-term benefits to tourism outweigh any damage the children might do. Minor repairs and painting are needed occasionally, but we’ve never had serious problems. I remember students used to throw all the toilet rolls behind the hotel,» said Christos Constantinou, former manager of Okeanis Hotel. «But,» he added, «I always thought that the schools we started working with in the mid-1980s were the best advertisements for Rhodes. Almost all of them were from northern Greece and in summer we had many customers from Macedonia whose children had recommended us.» From March 28 to April 16, around 4,500 pupils stayed at Hilton Hotel at Ixia, representing 10 percent of the total number of Greek students who went on this year’s five-day sparing break and 25 percent of those who chose Rhodes as a destination. «At the moment 1,000 people are staying here,» said general manager Tommy Ressopoulos. «We don’t serve alcohol, only coffee. But I haven’t slept for 10 days. The clients we have in April usually go to bed at 9 p.m., when the children are just starting to dress up to go out. We have to keep the same hours. I’d be surprised if they rested for five hours in four days.» Fierce competition The hours are even worse for travel agents. Marina has been working with school groups for 12 years. «At 7 a.m. I had departures from the port, at 10 a.m. arrivals at the airport, at 1 p.m. I was back at the port, and at 3.30 back at the airport,» she said. «I’m on my feet all day, dressed to the nines. The competition is fierce and public relations is everything.» The discussion inevitably comes round to agents’ commissions, and the open secret is that big agencies claim half the entry fee of each customer from the nightclubs. «Commissions are nothing new,» she commented, «but when you’re dealing with children, you have to handle things more subtly.» Rumor has it that matters are not quite so innocent. Bivolaris recommends transparency. «Tenders to schools should be in closed, unnamed envelopes. Local branches of the Greek National Tourism Organization should provide written information about hotels with a full evaluation, because teachers and pupils have been making decisions without access to information,» he suggested. «The Civil Aviation Authority and the Merchant Marine Ministry should be asked for information about the state of the planes and ships so that you know in advance, for example, whether the ship you’re sailing on is 10, 20 or 40 years old. «And on what basis have nightclubs become the rule on spring break? It is hypocritical to be counting how many minors go into a club where we then serve them alcohol. It’s as if the only thing we want to know is how many drinks we can sell by the end of the evening.» * This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s color supplement «K» on May 7, 2006.