Tourism will not be hit hard, says minister

Athens reckons the outlook for tourism is less gloomy than after anti-austerity riots last month and is shifting to seek visitors from China or Japan who are more interested in Greece’s ancient culture than its sunshine. «I’m not saying it’s going to be a good year for Greek tourism but we hope to recover many of the losses,» Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos told Reuters during a promotion of Greek islands, beaches and temples. Many foreign visitors canceled trips after the deaths of three people, including a pregnant woman, during riots that started in Athens on May 5 following protest marches against government cuts imposed to secure an EU and IMF bailout worth 110 billion euros ($136.2 billion). At the height of the crisis, Geroulanos said Athens feared the percentage drop in revenues from tourism – which accounts for almost a fifth of Greece’s gross domestic product – «could have been in the double digits» in 2010 from 2009. «Now we hope to keep it in the low single digits,» he said in an interview late on Monday night. «I’m cautious in mentioning numbers, because the situation is still fluid.» He said Athens was hardest hit by cancellations, while some islands were barely affected. In an incentive, Greece would guarantee hotel costs for tourists stranded, for instance by strikes or flights grounded by ash from an Icelandic volcano. The tourism industry had hoped to benefit from a weaker euro to stabilize revenues after a 10 percent drop in 2009. Greece’s overall GDP is expected to contract by 4 percent this year. In a switch from dependence on European visitors, Geroulanos said that Greece wanted to attract more tourists from countries including China, India and Japan. He will travel this week to China to promote Greece. Germans and Britons make up about a third of about 15 million annual visitors to Greece but have been among those with the most cancellations. Visitors from countries such as China, India and Japan «can be very substantial» in the long term, he said. And they would not overlap with the sun-worshipping beach tourists. «They are not stuck on a particular time to visit… they dislike extreme heat and prefer times when they can go and visit monuments and cultural sites. The more tourists we have like that, the more we can preserve the culture of Greece as we want it to be. We don’t need to become too accommodating to changes in our culture,» he said. Some British tourists, for instance, merely wanted to «experience a British pub in a warm place.» So far this year «you see a drop in numbers [of tourists] from England and Germany but we see a huge increase from Russia. And they tend to spend more money per capita,» he said. Greece would also seek to ease EU visa requirements for visitors from Turkey, for instance by allowing passengers on cruise ships one- or two-day stays in Greece.