NEWS

Sea, sand and slump for tourist industry

The number of tourists visiting the country remained static for the second year running, say representatives of the tourist industry, challenging the Development Ministry’s claims of a 7-percent rise. On the contrary, they argue that there has been a 3-percent drop. Overall numbers appear to have remained at roughly the same levels as in 2000, though with fluctuations from region to region. This year’s tourist season was characterized mainly by a slow start in the first few months, which was made up for during the peak summer period. Special offers from July onward were effective in boosting the number of foreign tourists, but resulted in less income for tourism companies. Overall, 12.5 million foreign tourists have visited the country this year so far. Recession Even popular destinations such as Crete and Rhodes had problems this year. Static or declining numbers were not only experienced by Greece but also by other tourist destinations, such as Spain. The opening of other markets has increased competition, with Turkey’s share having risen in recent years. This year, for the first time, it drew level with Greece in the number of flight arrivals from abroad. New markets such as Croatia and Bulgaria, which had problems in the past, now attract satisfactory numbers of tourists from European countries. The global recession created a preference for cheap package holiday destinations. The landmark year of 2004 is a golden opportunity for Greece to diversify the classic sea-and-sun holiday model. The Olympic Games will be included in tourist promotion as of next year, and improvements in public infrastructure will indirectly help the tourism sector. During the November-to-March period, tourists arriving from abroad will be subsidized to the tune of 40 euros each for the first time this year, in an effort to boost winter tourism. Six hundred billion drachmas will be spent on the tourism sector over the next five years, to be supplied out of EU funds. Domestic tourism also suffered a drop this year, with Greek tourists spending less time on holidays and heading for cheaper destinations. Renting a room is a matter of chance By Manina Danou Kathimerini Renting a room in Greece is a matter of chance, either bliss or nightmare. There is no other way to describe a stay in accommodation with access through successive rooms divided by sliding doors, reached by stumbling over other residents’ shoes. The fundamental problem of rented rooms is that a large number are illegal. People with houses often rent a room without a permit or fulfilling the necessary prerequisites. One idyllic holiday on Kythnos, related by one hapless tourist, ended up resembling scenes from a farcical movie. A slight movement broke the bed, the window frame came loose and the front-door handle broke off. The regional tourism bodies and tourist police lack the capacity to stamp out illegal rooms, said Costas Bretanos, general secretary of the Business Federation of Rented Rooms and Apartments (OED). On Corfu, for example, some 10,000 rooms are rented illegally, and the situation is the same in the rest of Greece. That draws business away from legal enterprises, which have to conform to regulations and pay taxes. Moreover, residents of other countries, both Greeks and foreigners, bring people to illegal accommodation, bypassing tourist agencies. Legal accommodation can also be problematic. Eleni K., for example, stayed in supposedly legal accommodation that lacked a window and cost 10,000 drachmas a night. We hope, after the attempts by our trade union, that existing businesses will be categorized by new criteria… and will not depend on the whim and judgment of every businessman, said Bretanos. The Development Ministry has planned to upgrade as much accommodation as possible by 2004. A new grading system for the approximately 8,000 hotels and the 35,000 rooms in Greece will be introduced over the next three years. This will be in accordance with the star system (with five categories) and the key system (with four categories) respectively. Prices will be linked to category, obliging hoteliers and renters to invest in their property in order to receive a higher ranking. 80 bln drs in funding For the first time, to improve rented accommodation (which has the most problems), modernizing programs will receive funding of 80 billion drachmas. Greater emphasis will be placed on hotels in Attica, which will host visitors and Olympic officials during the Games. Few havens for yachts The country is losing profitable tourism to other countries such as Turkey due to the lack of properly organized and inexpensive services for boat charterers and owners on holiday in the Aegean. The marinas owned by the Greek Tourism Organization (EOT) are in a bad way at present, said Efthymis Bibis, manager of the chartering section of the firm Vernikos Kottera. In any case, they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. As for the marinas… belonging to harbor funds and municipalities, the problems are huge… and security is non-existent. Quite often, there isn’t an employee to help the yachts moor, and there are no maintenance facilities. Obtaining fuel supplies is also a big problem. Anyone with a petrol tanker can charge whatever price he feels like while the petrol is often adulterated or bad quality. The marinas also have limited capacity. Private marinas such as those at Lavrion, Corfu and Vouliagmeni might provide the full range of services but are extremely expensive. State marinas, due to a total lack of investment over the past few years, have been neglected, resulting in hazards to vessels and their passengers, which the State is only now apparently becoming aware of. To protect boats in bad weather conditions, many of the mooring berths urgently need maintenance work, even replacing. Telephones, power, water and sewage supplies are all inadequate. An annual increase of 200 to 300 yachts seeking anchorage is forecast by the end of 2004, with 350 extra 45-100-foot craft expected in that year alone. The construction of the Olympic marina at Aghios Kosmas, with 600 mooring berths, is expected to affect supply and demand after 2004. But the increase is unlikely to lead to significant traffic flows from marina to marina unless services improve. The National Economy Ministry will announce competitions for the upgrading of existing marinas and construction of new ones by the end of the year. It will explore investment possibilities for constructing new marinas on several islands as well as a yacht repair center on Rhodes and pleasure craft berths on a number of other islands, at an estimated cost of 100 billion drachmas. Greeks pick short stays in cheap accommodation By Effi Hadzioannidou Kathimerini Four in 10 Greeks did not go on holiday this summer, according to the Institute of Consumer Protection (INKA). The great proportion of those who were recorded as vacationers at highway toll booths were accommodated by friends and relatives. Indicative of this year’s decrease in domestic tourism was the availability of rooms throughout August in many tourist resorts. Hoteliers reported a drop in the number of Greek tourists in the Aegean. The slump in tourist visits is attributed to the economic downturn and the decline in disposable funds over the past four months. Panhellenic Federation of Tourist Enterprises (POET) Chairman Marios Trivizas claims that the decline in domestic tourism reached 20 percent in some parts of the country. The length of stay was usually a week, while rented rooms was the accommodation preferred. The overall problems in the sector were partly to blame, he said. Rhodes Vice Chairman Stathis Vassilakis of the Rhodes Hoteliers Association attributes the drop in domestic tourism on the island to the lack of coordinated attempts to modernize tourist facilities. We have not done much to retain our clients, he said. Tourist facilities cannot compete with others in the Mediterranean. The harbor is small, the marina has been under construction for the past eight years and is still unfinished. Power failures occur at peak hours, he added, creating tremendous problems for businesses and tourists. Complaints are not confined to such issues – one group of Greek tourists found themselves paying three times as much for their lobster pasta – and were charged separately for the spaghetti. The waiters spoke every language under the sun – except Greek. The number of Greek tourists fell at other popular resorts as well. Conferences and golf courses sorely lacking Greece lags behind other countries in developing specialized forms of tourism, especially conference and golfing facilities, which are keys to attracting high-income tourists. Though the country has features that favor the development of golf tourism, which is growing in popularity in Europe and the rest of the world, existing courses are hardly a drawing card. The granting of relevant permits has become bogged down in bureaucracy. A program to build some 30 new golf courses, which was announced five years ago, has resulted in only one actually being completed, in Crete. Other Mediterranean countries, such as Turkey and Portugal, have swiftly implemented investment programs for constructing new golf courses. An estimated 3.2 million Europeans spend their holidays at golf resorts, of which the lion’s share, 2.4 million players, come from Britain, France, Germany and Sweden. Earnings from golfers amount to 1.775 billion euros, a figure which is expected to rise to 4 billion euros by 2008. Conference tourism is in slightly better shape in Greece, but still lags behind other European countries which possess modern conference centers. Conferences are a major earner for hotels, and those that have managed to fill hotel rooms even in the current adverse climate tend to offer conference facilities. Athens is probably the only European capital city lacking a large conference center, though large ones have been set up on Rhodes, Kos and Crete. STATHIS KOUSOUNIS Ships have more passengers – and more engine trouble By Nikos Bardounias Kathimerini Thousands of passengers crowded into Piraeus harbor again this year, waiting under the hot sun to travel to the island of their choice, and charging on board at the first opportunity. The enormous shortcomings of the port of Piraeus were revealed this year, highlighting the need for infrastructure works in view of the Olympic Games. Though 13 percent more passengers traveled by ship this year than last, preferring the most modern ships to airplanes, engine trouble also increased, with the result that thousands of passengers had long delays. Curiously, most cases of engine trouble occurred in the more modern vessels, which brought accusations of bad choices by ferry companies. From the beginning of summer to the end of August, 20 cases of engine trouble occurred on 15 ferryboats, of which 11 were on modern vessels. Dockworkers’ unions and company representatives characterized the problems as non-serious, insufficient to cause the delays by themselves. But according to the president of the Merchant Marine Captains’ Association (PEPEN), Evangelos Kouzilos, such a large number of ships dock at ports (with no facilities) that engines never come to a halt. Engine trouble cannot be dealt with since ships are only briefly in port. The traffic system Delays were caused by other factors as well, such as bad weather. Strict checks demanded by the ministry this year, poor docking facilities and the traffic system, instituted for the first time this year, all contributed. A coast guard official explained how the latter worked. A delayed ship is obliged to wait for other ships, which are on time, to enter port, then for ships to set sail as scheduled. Only then can it dock. Charter flights at 2000 levels The number of foreign tourists arriving by charter flight was around the same as last year, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. Only to Kos was there an increase in August of 10 percent (149,504 against 135,232 in the same month last year) and to Hania on Crete, of 8 percent (93,122 against 80,173 in the same month of 2000). – Kos had more tourists this August, chiefly Britons and Dutch, but fewer Germans (by 3.4 percent). The same was true of June and July. – Foreign tourists to Rhodes increased by 3.7 percent in August (275,804 visitors against 265,976 last year), mostly Britons and Germans, but incoming flights dropped by 7.6 percent. – Corfu hosted 193,231 tourists this August (194,105 last year), and numbers remained steady during June and July. Britons (395,415 against 341,582 last August) and Germans (148,333 against 154,467) made up most of the tourists. EFFI HADZIOANNIDOU Summertime, when the living is difficult (and you’re still 500th in the queue) It’s August, and despite experience that has taught us to get to the port several hours beforehand, we are still 500th in the queue of cars waiting to embark. Once on board, there is nowhere to sit and the voyage is spent on top of the life-jacket container, which may prove a salvation in time of shipwreck, but makes for acute discomfort at any other time. The drama does not end with disembarkation. Queueing is a hallmark of the holidays, while swimming and sunbathing (head on somebody else’s shoes, toes tickling someone else’s ear) are practically unbearable. To get to the sea, one literally has to trample on bodies. The price of a bottle of water may reach 600 drachmas. Taking advantage of the huge demand, renters, hoteliers, restaurateurs and bar owners push up their prices to twice those of June and July. Nevertheless, Greeks still insist on going on holiday in high season. Ninety-one percent of available accommodation is occupied in August, while domestic tourists number 2,689,866, half a million more than in July and 1.5 million more than in June. An informal social contract dictates that leave is taken in August. Even the self-employed are obliged to follow the trend, due to the lack of business at that time. Traditionally, August is the month with the best weather and full moons. In the old days, people would return to their villages in August to see their families and friends, which is why the month is associated with the largest festivals.