Pinched for cash, Greeks take shorter vacations as hoteliers slash prices to remain in business

More foreign tourists might be vacationing in Greece since the 2004 Olympics, but the same does not hold true for most Greeks. Destinations once preferred by people in low- and middle-income brackets have seen a considerable decline in visitors even in August, when Greek families usually go on holiday. The reasons are chiefly financial. Last year, about one in three Greeks said they did not go away on holiday. This year it is one in two. According to a VPRC survey for Skai Radio, this year 48 percent of Greeks did not go or could not afford to go on holiday, compared to 37 percent last year. Holidays away from home are now a luxury for many Greeks. As a result, at many popular destinations the season was restricted to two to three weeks. «If we didn’t have business now, the entire island would be finished,» said Costas Koukouvinos, head of the Federation of Rooms and Apartments for Rent on the island of Evia, who spoke to Kathimerini in mid-August. «Here in Aidipsos, we depend mostly on subsidized holidays. If it weren’t for the Social Security Foundation (IKA) handing out vouchers for the mineral springs, the place would be deserted.» Koukouvinos believed the island’s accommodation was 60-70 percent full in July and August. As for prices, rooms near the seaside were being rented for as little as 30 to 50 euros a night. A meal for two of fresh fish by the sea was as cheap as 50-60 euros. Holidays in Evia, Thessaly and the Sporades Islands are becoming shorter. A three-week holiday, the norm in the pre-euro period, shrank to 7-10 days just three years ago and has further dropped to 3-7 days. Resorts in Evia and Thessaly are busy only from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, as are other resorts close to large towns and cities. «Our biggest problem now is not the high season trade, but the bargaining,» Nikos Kleitoyiannis, the federation’s president in Thessaly and the Northern Sporades, told Kathimerini before the end of the August season. «Before the euro came in, rooms cost 10,000-14,000 drachmas a night. Although infrastructure has improved, the average price remains about the same, at about 40 euros. We reduce the price to 30 euros so as to fill the rooms, and customers bargain with us to bring it down to 25 euros, so they can make ends meet.» «Last year we had 10 percent more visitors than the previous year, but revenue was the same,» he added. «If business keeps up at the present rate until the end of August, there’ll be an increase in traffic and revenue, but if occupancy drops to 50-40 percent after August 16, then we’ll be in serious trouble.» Resorts such as Portaria, Makrynitsa and Tsagarades in the mountains of Magnesia, or at Kala Nera on the plains are usually full because of their singular beauty. In other areas only seaside accommodation is in demand. As for prices, studio apartments by the sea cost 30-45 euros and 40-55 euros in mountain regions – these are higher in the winter months. Ten percent of accommodation consists of self-contained units that can sleep four people. Here the prices range from 40-70 euros a night. Cheaper rooms Between July 36 and August 19, accommodation on Skopelos is as much as 95 percent full. Outside that period bookings can fall drastically. That’s why prices are half as low in September. «Greek holidaymakers are a bit of a lost cause,» said Yiannis Yioldasis, head of the island’s hoteliers’ association. «That is why we have to aim for the foreigners. However, since prices are similar in most EU states, you have to provide quality, something which in Greece is sorely lacking.» Trade is also slow on the island of Samothrace, according to Deputy Mayor Nikos Kontoulis. «The island is flooded with Greeks and Germans between August 1 and 20, but the rest of the time there is a serious problem because of the poor transport,» he said. «In the past, people used to come for long weekends from Thessaloniki and Drama, as there was a daily boat service between here and Kavala. This service has been reduced to once a week, on a very small ship at 1 a.m. There were also two local boat services that belonged to islanders. Even those have been discontinued.» The only daily service is from Alexandroupolis, a two-and-a-half-hour voyage. Accommodation in a studio apartment or a good hotel on the island costs about 60 euros a night. Food is good and cheap. A meal of meat, salad and wine costs about 20 euros for two people, a drink at a bar about 6 euros. «In July I had just one booking,» said Ouranios Parthenios, former head of the Kalymnos hoteliers’ association. «For August, only for the August 15 holiday week.» He closed his travel agency in Athens 20 years ago in order to get into the local tourism trade on the island, but that business turned out to be whatever spilled over from the neighboring island of Kos. Large hotel complexes built on Kos once attracted major tour operators organizing all-inclusive holidays. Kalymnos had 4,500 beds; now there are just 1,000. The port was built with European Union subsidies but there was no provision for large ships. The marina was never completed, so pleasure yachts now head for Turkish ports just across the water. There are also problems with the sewer system, the water supply and waste management. In recent years there has been growing interest in rock climbing and diving on the island, but this is not enough on its own to make up losses. The traditional politeness of Kalymnos locals has not helped lessen the island’s isolation. Leros has both an airport and a daily boat service, both of which have helped the tourist trade. Giorgos Yiannakas, head of the local accommodation association, said the island was booked for June and September, but there is always the risk of people not finding boat tickets. A large studio goes for 30-40 euros a night in high season and half that in September. «If you don’t decrease prices people won’t come, and you have to provide good services. Greeks, even those on a budget, demand quality,» Yiannakas said.