SOCIETY

Rackets corner souvenir market at the foot of the Acropolis

It’s just after 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and the parking lot in front of the Dionysos restaurant close to the Acropolis ticket offices is jam-packed, even though it’s late October. More than 20 tour buses and around 40 taxis are unloading hundreds of cruise passengers who are visiting the sights in Athens before heading back to Piraeus.

“It’s a slow day,” a tour guide who declined to be named told us when she saw our surprise at the crowds. “There are just four cruise ships coming in today. You can’t imagine the pandemonium on other days,” she said, summoning her group by holding up a sign with the number 32 on it.

Despite the trek from the port to downtown Athens during the morning rush hour, the tourists spill out onto Dionysiou Areopagitou Street brimming with enthusiasm. Most have just a few hours to visit the main sites, do some shopping and possibly grab a bite to eat before returning to Piraeus for their departure.

Kathimerini found itself amid the throng during an investigation into reports that there are rackets operating in the area whose members direct tourists to souvenir and other shops with which they have made deals on a commission basis. We were not prepared, however, for just how blatantly it is done.

During the critical hours of 8-11 a.m., when tour bus traffic is at its peak, the coach drivers park right outside specific stores and instruct their passengers to do their shopping there. We observed an American couple – they had a Stars-and-Stripes pin on their bag – looking at a display of fridge magnets at a souvenir shop. “No, not here!” shouted the taxi driver who had brought them and was waiting to take them back. “I’ll tell you where to go – good prices!”

Spyros Heimonas owns a souvenir shop in the area and told us that tourists who don’t follow instructions and venture into shops that are not part of the racket are practically forced out by their “guides.”

Bad press, bad business

According to the president of the National Confederation for Greece Commerce and the Piraeus Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Vassilis Korkidis, the phenomenon of “manipulated shopping” is responsible, in part at least, for the discrepancy between visitor numbers and turnover in tourist retail markets.

“We had an impressive rise in visitor numbers in 2014. Together with cruise passengers, tourist arrivals to the end of the year are expected to exceed 20.5 million, double that of the 2007-08 period,” Korkidis said. “The odd thing, however – and this is something that needs investigating – is that revenues came to 13 billion euros then and will likely come to just 13.5 billion this year.”

According to official figures, average tourism spending per day on food and shopping came to 88 euros in 2009 and 2010, and has dropped to 37 euros today. This drop is not because of the crisis, Korkidis argued.

“One of the reasons is manipulated shopping, which ensnares consumers or takes advantage of the limited amount of time they have [to spend at a destination], as is the case with cruise tourists. Tourists are directed to specific shops and possibly restaurants by people who then earn a cut of proceeds. It is an unwritten rule of the market,” said Korkidis.

Indeed, tourists traveling with groups are rarely given enough time to walk around and shop at their leisure.

“They are brought and taken away like sheep. We never get to see them,” said Alexandros Debic, the owner of a store that is off the rackets’ turf, on Rovertou Galli Street. “They are ushered into shops where products are hugely overpriced to include the commission that the guides or private drivers will get. Cabbies have their own group of stores and get commission as well.”

Coupled with the effects of the crisis, this practice has led many small stores in the Acropolis area that are not part of the rackets near closure.

“We are facing the specter of extinction,” said Antonis Kardasilaris, who has had a souvenir shop near the Acropolis since 2000. “The crisis has hurt us but the fact that there are some people who corner the market in such a manner has resulted in very slow traffic.”

Like other shopkeepers we spoke to, Kardasilaris said that the phenomenon has gained momentum in recent years. “What used to be a bit of extra pocket money for the people who brought custom has grown to represent 30-40 percent of turnover in kickbacks,” he said.

“Failure to issue receipts is not the only form of tax evasion,” stressed Korkidis. “Unregistered commissions are also untaxed and work against the stores that pay them as well as the state that does not see any revenues from them.”

Legal loopholes

Many of the shop owners we approached agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity. They said that the deals with the “guides” are verbal, nonbinding agreements and that transactions are conducted off the books and under the table. The rackets have become audacious, they said.

“Up to a point, they did what they did but we profited as well. Now they take tourists around as though they are prisoners,” said Debic, whose shop is right beside an establishment which he says is part of the racket.

“Many of us are frightened. Wherever there are interests at play, wherever a racket has been organized, there are also problems. But we have reached the end of our tether and must react as well,” said Kardasilaris.

Meanwhile, Tourist Police sources said that there aren’t enough officers to crack down on the phenomenon even though it has been around for years and is common knowledge.

“Last year we recorded numerous such violations in the Acropolis area and Plaka either during our own inspections or following complaints, but we need a lot more people to really quash the phenomenon,” said one officer who asked not to be named.

Meanwhile, a law drafted by the Development Ministry and passed in July abolished older legislation prohibiting tour guides and hired drivers from directing visitors to particular shops, bars or eateries or from making stops at the same establishments as part of their standard routes. This clause was replaced with one that makes it illegal for an individual or a group to be “harassed or compelled into accepting or rejecting a travel or transportation service, food or entertainment or tourist accommodation services, or retail products.” Violations of this law may lead to six months in prison or a fine of at least 1,000 euros, the new law states.

The Tourism Ministry argues that the new legislation is stricter, though other experts argue it is aimed at discouraging touting rather that tackling the real problem, which is manipulated consumption.

Authorities such as the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) and the ministries of Tourism and Development in fact admit that most violations of this law that have gone to court have ended in a not-guilty ruling.

Inked and stamped

Kathimerini managed to obtain a contract between a cruise company based in Santa Clarita, California and a souvenir shop in the Acropolis area according to which the shop would be “recommended” to cruise passengers for a fee of $50 per group.

Vassilis Petalas, a lawyer in Piraeus who has drawn up a number of similar contracts, says there is nothing illegal about the practice.

“There is a gap in the legislation, many loopholes and confusion between touting and manipulation. When shopping is part of the standard tour and the program is given to tourists, then it is completely legal,” he explained. “In contrast, when you direct tourists to a location that is not part of the tour program and do so without an agreement, meaning that the commissions are not declared, then you are violating touting laws. As long as there is an agreement, then the commission is declared and taxed.”

One of the crucial issues, according to the lawyer, is that the GNTO has not assigned a special area for tour buses visiting the Acropolis to park.

“When there is a public parking lot right beside an archaeological site, tour buses can be obliged park there and unload their passengers there. Otherwise, they can park where they like,” he said.

What is certain is that such phenomena do nothing to help Greece’s image or tourism, one of its main sources of revenue.

“Anyone who is put through this trauma will go back to the ship and ask themselves why they came to Greece,” said Debic. “In other countries you leave the ship and do what you like. Here you are obliged to use the tour buses as there is no metro or some other form of direct fixed-track transport [to take you into central Athens].”

“We need to put an end to these bad habits and give consumers the freedom to make their own choices,” stressed Korkidis.