Walk the streets of Athens, past the boarded-up shops and the buildings that were damaged by firebombs, and you will notice a sight that was unimaginable two or three years ago: Tourists, and lots of them.
It’s not yet high season and the streets are thick with tourists, many from Asia – also somewhat of a novelty – and plenty from Russia, Germany and other European countries.
Walker Chang, a 33-year-old engineer from Taiwan who was doing the grand Greek land-and-sea tour with his wife, said they had wanted to come to Greece for years but were put off by endless reports of the mass protests and strikes that turned central Athens and other Greek cities into conflict zones during the crisis.
“We knew it was terrible here about two years ago,” he said. “We love Athens. The people are friendly and the islands are beautiful, like Santorini. We will be back.”
In the first three months of this year, international tourist visits to Athens were up 30 per cent over the same period a year ago. In 2013, tourist visits to Greece as a whole rose 15 per cent, to a record 17.9 million, and are on course to set another record this year. Tourist revenue last year was estimated at a plump €12-billion ($17.85-billion). The visitor numbers from Canada are up strongly, largely because of more direct flights.
While the tourist surge is a godsend to the hotels, restaurants and museums in Athens and other mainland cities, it has also put smiles on the faces of Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, who can point to at least one industry that is coming back from the dead, and Olga Kefalogianni, the tourism minister who can stroll into cabinet meetings with the chart lines pointing in the right direction.
Ms. Kefalogianni, the only female cabinet minister in the centre-right government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, has emerged as the marketing face of Greece’s rebounding tourism industy. She is young – 39 – photogenic, near fluent in English and seems to have charmed tourist operators around the world, from Canada to Saudi Arabia, into putting Greece back on the tourist map.
The daughter of a former cabinet minister, who at one point was a tourism minister himself, and a commercial lawyer by training, Ms. Kefalogianni was educated at King’s College in London and Tufts University in Massachusetts, where she earned a degree in international affairs. First elected in 2007, she became tourism minister in June, 2012, when the Greek crisis was at its peak and the country was on the verge of dropping out of the euro zone.
“When I assumed office in 2012, because of all the negative publicity about Greece and all the economic and political instability, tourism numbers were down,” she said. “Everyone had associated Greece with sea and sun, the islands and of course the rich Greek culture. But in recent years, we were seeing all over the images of Syntagma Square with all the riots. These images were replayed and replayed.”
Syntagma Square, the vast open space in front of the Parliament buildings, was ground zero for the anti-austerity movement. At various times between 2010, when Greece was bailed out, and mid-2012, when the European Central Bank finally took the edge off the crisis through the launch of its bond-buying program, the square exploded in violence.
In one riot in February, 2012, 40 buildings in central Athens were severely gutted by fires or heavily damaged. One protest in 2010 turned tragic when three employees in an Athens bank died of smoke inhalation when the branch was firebombed. Mediterranean tourists went to safer countries or to the Greek islands, which largely escaped the protest movement.
By the time Ms. Kefalogianni took the job, the cities had stopped burning, making her effort to restore Greece’s image as a “safe and friendly destination” all the easier. She got a little help on the value-for-money front. Greece’s internal devaluation, the result of savage austerity and high unemployment, made the country more attractive to budget-minded visitors.
The government did its part by keeping the value-added tax on accommodation and restaurants at a low 6.5 per cent. It rose to 23 per cent in other industries (although it has since been reduced to 13 per cent).
Opening up the cruise-ship market was another factor. Until two years ago, a bizarre law prevented non-European-registered ships from starting and ending voyages in Greece. Once that law was deep-sixed, revenue from seaborne tourists surged because they would spend time in Greece on either side of the voyage.
The next frontiers are retirement communities equipped with golf courses and medical tourism, where foreign visitors would combine health care, from cosmetic surgery to infertility treatments, with a holiday in the sun. The privatizations of marinas and small airports should help. Starved of investment, some are in dire shape.
Ms. Kefalogianni is lucky that the worst of the crisis is over. If Greece were still in the thick of it, her job would have been impossible.
“It looks like tourist visits will be up by a double-digit figure again, this year” she said, beaming. “I’m happy serving my country.”