Refugees give Greek tour operators an extended season

Refugees give Greek tour operators an extended season

Placards in hand, travel agent Iakovos Bouchoris and his team scout for customers at Greece's busy Piraeus port, near Athens, where some 5,000 people arrived on Tuesday in a single day on ships from outlying islands close to Turkey.

Instead of the usual groups of German, Italian and Korean tourists, the tour operators were waiting for Syrian refugees; and rather than touring the ancient ruins of the Greek capital, they were heading north to the Greek border with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Greece's peak holiday season may have ended in August, but for many travel agents, business is booming in October.

"We've been filling 20 to 25 buses a day, about 1,250 people a day," Bouchoris said, recalling a peak in early September.

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have entered the European Union through Greece's eastern islands this year, a short but dangerous journey from Turkey on overcrowded, inflatable boats.

From there, they travel to the mainland where most plan to head almost immediately to the northern border, hoping to move on to other European countries such as Germany, Austria or Sweden which are better equipped to deal with them.

At Piraeus, scores of people hurry across the quayside, children in their arms and belongings packed in shopping bags or backpacks. Some head to government-chartered buses taking them to the train or bus station. Those without cash make their way to central Athens squares and wait.

For those who can afford it, an eight-hour bus journey booked through a travel agent on the islands straight to the Evzones crossing on Greece's border with FYROM costs 60 euros ($67.60) and 30 euros for children under 10.

Tickets in hand, they look frantically for the bus, parked outside the port as authorities have banned tour operators from entering.

Dressed in a suit, Bouchoris was waiting on the quayside for some 40 people. Two of his buses had already left for the border early on Tuesday. More passengers were expected in the evening.

Bouchoris, who has been running the Interland travel agency, a family business, since 2004, has partnered with 45 other agencies on almost all major Aegean islands where refugees arrive including Kos, Lesvos, Symi, Kalymnos and Leros.

When good weather prompted a surge of arrivals last month, he hired nine more workers to cope with rising demand, bringing his total number of employees to 36 including two interpreters.

Boats, buses, feet

A record 88,000 migrants arrived on Greek islands in August, 11 times the number of arrivals in the same month last year, according to Frontex, the EU border agency. Nearly three-quarters were Syrians.

A rise in the number of arrivals in recent weeks as people rush to get to Europe before autumn storms hit the region drew other travel agents to Piraeus.

Dimitris Vasiliou was there waving signs with his Thiamis travel agency's logo, waiting for passengers who had pre-booked the trip up north, usually filling one or two buses a day.

Among his customers: a brother and sister from Syria, a group of young Syrian men, and a Syrian couple travelling with their five children.

"I left Syria because (President) Bashar al-Assad threw big bombs on our home," said Louay, a 45-year-old officer who fled the city of Homs, a centre of the insurrection against Assad's rule and a major opposition stronghold until it was retaken by the army in May 2014.

Louay said he first had to pay off a Syrian army officer to leave Syria. His wife and five young children travelled with him, often on foot and then with three dozen more people by boat from the Turkish port of Izmir to Lesvos, which he steered through bad weather, losing eight people overboard.

The trip from Lesvos to Piraeus cost the couple 120 euros on a government-chartered ferry, plus 110 euros for the bus to the border. As to how they will get reach Sweden after crossing into FYROM, Louay smiled: "On my feet. We will walk."

Also waiting to board was Lania Habo, a 30-year-old English teacher from the southern Syrian city of Deraa, whose journey to Greece with her brother took two weeks.

"We will reach Germany, God willing," she said.

The travel agents' biggest gripe is being banned from the port, forcing them to park outside, potentially losing customers to less scrupulous bus companies which they say charge less but operate illegally by not issuing receipts.

Officers patrolling the port order the agents to leave, directing the crowd inadvertently to shadow companies seeking to make an easy profit, Bouchoris said.


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