OPINION

Tourism and the citizen

Concern over a possible drop in the number of visitors coming to Greece this year centers on the two aspects that determine the flow of tourists: the economy in visitors’ countries and the destination’s image. On both fronts, Greece faces serious challenges. The problems that British citizens, for example, will face from the plunging value of the pound and their own worsening economy are ringing alarm bells in Greece, where tourism is a mainstay of the economy and Britons are a pillar of tourism. If the number of British visitors is greatly reduced, then tourism overall will suffer, with all that this entails in terms of revenue and the growth of unemployment. Unfortunately, the global economic crisis will severely impact most of the economies of countries whose citizens are regular visitors to Greece. There is not much that the Greeks can do to change this. That’s why it is alarming to see that in the field where the Greeks have full responsibility – the image that their country projects – they are tragically – criminally – inept. In the last few weeks, the Greeks appear to have done everything in their power to frighten tourists away. Through most of December, until the Israeli attack on Gaza, the world’s television screens were dominated by scenes of an anarchist Armageddon in the streets of Athens. A police officer’s fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy sparked weeks of rage that saw countless banks, stores and vehicles destroyed as police seemed unable to do anything other than fumigate burning neighborhoods with tons of tear gas. The image of lawlessness was heightened further by the near-fatal shooting of a police officer by gunmen of the Revolutionary Struggle terrorist group on January 5. Aside from the shock of such a dynamic resurgence of urban terrorism, the most powerful image of the attack was provided by the deep bullet holes in the outer walls of the National Archaeological Museum, one of the world’s greatest repositories of the glories of ancient Greece. As if that were not enough, in the middle of the riots, the Acropolis was closed for several days because Culture Ministry employees were not getting paid money owed to them. In the era of YouTube, Facebook and blogs, this anger can negate the impact of millions of euros budgeted to promote tourism, while each disappointed tourist can be counted on to dissuade many others. This week’s kidnapping of a prominent shipowner and businessman was the final straw, with Greece making international news once again not for anything positive, but because the country now appears to be in the grip of lawlessness and criminal gangs. Anyone living here knows this is not the case, but the condensed image of the country seen across the world undermines the fact that Greece is still one of the few countries in the world where people can safely walk the city streets at night. In the past year (from January to October), Greece trailed its direct competitors in the eurozone in terms of visitor growth rates, according to the Institute of Tourism Research and Forecasting (ITEP). And that was before the real depth and breadth of the global economic crisis began to be apparent in many of our visitors’ countries. It is clear that our tourism is in for a difficult time. It is just as clear that mending the country’s image depends on each of us – not just the government, which bears the greatest burden for enforcing the law and keeping the country running effectively. It is up to everyone – those involved in the tourism industry as well as the rest of us – to make a visit to Greece one of life’s great pleasures. We have the ancient heritage, the natural splendor and our citizens’ famed hospitality to achieve this, if we use them correctly. We must overturn the negative impressions that we have created in the world’s consciousness, and this will take constant effort, on a national and personal level.