ATHENS — Costas Papanicolaou is stuffing his souvenir shop with extra merchandise and stringing his store entrance with welcome flags from umpteen countries.
He’s also slashing his prices by as much as 50%, and in a scheme that bears a whiff of desperation, he’s even thinking of throwing a Greek toga on a Chinese employee to help lure Asian tourists.
A painful but relatively peaceful year after Greece was beset by grim headlines of political pandemonium and violent protests, tourism experts and the government are expecting a surge in vacationers, and with it a boost to Greece’s struggling economy.
But recent memories of chaos in the streets and fear of financial meltdown have people here keeping their fingers crossed that nothing will turn away the expected onslaught, a year after millions of travelers stayed away.
Early bookings released this month show anticipated tourist arrivals at a record 17 million, which could mean an inflow of about $1.3 billion in hard currency, crucial to getting the economy firing up again, boosting tax revenue and leading to 50,000 new jobs during the summer season.
“It’s a quick fix,” said George Drakopoulos, a leading member of the Assn. of Greek Tourism Enterprises. “Just about everyone is banking on the industry to score a comeback this year.
“It is of paramount importance.”
Like its financially troubled Mediterranean brethren — Spain, Portugal and Italy — Greece relies heavily on tourism, which accounts for about 16% of its gross domestic product and 1 in 5 jobs. With 27.2% of the workforce unemployed — the highest percentage in Europe — and a six-year recession biting deep into the economy and household incomes, the stakes are high for the tourist season.
Increased revenue could help “speed up Greece’s financial recovery process,” said Helen McDermott, a senior economist at London-based Oxford Economics. But “any setback at this point could derail it.”
That stark realization was clear in an appeal this month from business-minded Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who asked citizens to “put on [their] best face to foreigners” expected to visit in coming months.
The last time officials here spoke similarly was nearly a decade ago and the reference was to the Athens 2004 Olympics. But Greece was celebrating strong financial strides then, and was using the Summer Games as a global coming-out party.
Today, Greece’s economy, already mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, is expected to contract an additional 4.2% this year, squeezing out a whisker of growth in 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Regaining confidence is crucial. But officials are concerned that things might go wrong during the peak tourist season, whether by price gouging, attacks on foreigners or renewed political protests in the violence-scarred streets of Athens.
The biggest fear: violence by homespun terrorist groups.
“We’re screwed if they start up targeting and bombing banks again,” a leading tourism official said on condition of anonymity. “Travelers will be put off from pulling out any money.”
Last week, high-ranking police, intelligence and tourism officials met on the island of Corfu to review summer security preparations, including emergency evacuation plans, beefed-up patrols and increased numbers of police at holiday hot spots.
“We have to be extremely vigilant,” Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said. “We need to regain confidence. It is a matter of national priority.”
Since the start of the financial crisis in late 2009, attacks on mainly Dutch and German nationals and recurring scenes at protests of burning effigies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel eclipsed Greece’s image of a serene, sun-soaked paradise.
Still, after two highly charged elections and not quite a year since Samaras took charge of a three-party coalition, political stability has been restored. Protests over ongoing austerity continue, but violence and fear of a Greek exit from the Eurozone have largely fizzled, giving way to a surge in bookings among German, British and Russian travelers.
To cope with the demand, international airlines are offering additional flights in the coming months. Complex and cumbersome visa issuing procedures have also been eased, allowing Russia’s burgeoning bourgeois class to visit Greece. Samaras and nearly half his Cabinet even took to Beijing recently to sign a series of bilateral agreements and to woo Chinese tourists.
Despite the optimistic outlook, independent industry experts continue to express caution.
“Quick fixes are good head starts, not viable strategies,” tourism association member Drakopoulos said. “If long-term planning isn’t in place to convince markets of a comeback, then pitfalls lie ahead … something Greece cannot afford.”
Carassava is a special correspondent.