Almost four decades have passed since Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou famously asked, “Are we to be the waiters of Europe?” The phrase echoed the mood and the social norms of the time. Greece was awash with cheap money from Europe, the country lost any industrial base that it had, and people got used to becoming rich without producing anything of value.
The phrase would make sense if Greece had in the meantime made progress in other areas. That might perhaps give us the right to snub tourism and the potential to evolve into a popular residential destination for European retirees. However, we neither developed an industrial sector nor did we become a high-tech hub.
Tourism has become a key sector for Greece’s economy. And we are not just talking about “waiters.” A new generation of businessmen and workers have developed a new culture of professionalism that has nothing to do with the 1980s. It is evident in all sorts of businesses in the tourism sector, from hotels to tavernas which manage to have that edgy feel while remaining in touch with local culture. A large network of suppliers, among others, depend on tourism for their well-being. Significant progress has been made here too; Greek wine is a typical – albeit not the only – example.
Before Covid-19, Greece had become a trend. Athens was a popular destination for young Europeans who were drawn to the capital’s urbanscape. Cozy small hotels mushroomed throughout the city, to the point where some pundits were worried that a bubble was building up. Records were being broken every year.
Then the virus broke out and everything changed. The crisis is unprecedented. Those who only recently entered the market will find it very hard to survive. Those who will suffer the most are our young fellow citizens who entered the tourism business with enthusiasm and lots of passion. You could see that they took pride in their work, they did not feel like the “waiters of Europe.” They saw themselves as professionals providing top-notch service.
However difficult things may be today, we have good reason to be optimistic. Greece has received an incredible amount of good publicity in recent weeks. Once listed as an example to be avoided, it is now referred to as a model. The combination of beauty, calmness and the positive image from the way in which the country has managed the coronavirus crisis is unique; and we ought to take advantage of it. Without haste or hyperbole, because such an attitude could backfire. It takes patience and cautious planning.