Celebrities and tourists flood Greece. But harsh winter is not far | Helena Smith


eearlier this month, Elon Musk flew to Mykonos, reportedly spending €7,000 to enjoy the pleasures of a golden color on a speedboat for a few hours. On nearby Paros, Roger Federer soaked up the rays with his family away from the tennis court, while Magic Johnson raved about her “life-changing experience” at the Acropolis and Nicole Kidman thanked “beautiful Greece” on Instagram.

Greece has a nice summer. Just when tourism officials think it can’t get any better, it does. Athens prepares for a million visitors this week; record numbers are flocking to the islands – jellyfish notwithstanding – and holidaying celebrities abound.

“The whole world is voting this year [for] Greece,” Vasilis Kikilias told the country’s tourism minister Observer. “We have a war in Europe, a pandemic that is still with us, an energy crisis, global uncertainty, inflation, tension with Turkey and even jellyfish, but they are still coming. Arrivals on the popular islands have increased by 20%.”

It can’t get much better in the Greek capital either: after the lost years of the coronavirus, holidaymakers have returned in droves, swarming the streets of the historic city center and teeming with archaeological sites.

Figures already point to a tourist season that will surpass the country’s all-time record by attracting 33.1 million visitors – more than three times the total population of Greece – in 2019.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk, who flew to Mykonos, was one of the many celebrities who visited Greece. Photo: Lily Lawrence/Getty Images

For Kostas Lavidas, who runs the kebab shop that first made his grandfather famous in the 1950s, holidaymakers are a lifesaver. “What’s certain is that if it weren’t for the tourists, I wouldn’t have the business I have,” he said, placing sticks of marinated pork on the grill behind him as lines formed outside the restaurant off Athens’ Syntagma Square. “Thank God they’re here!”

It is not only the resort islands that are reporting a significant increase in arrivals. Cruise demand has also grown sharply, with more than 700 ships expected to call at Greek ports in 2022. “There is a 280% increase in the port of Thessaloniki and a 130% increase in Piraeus,” Kikilias said.

Flights to Athens International Airport – one of the few in Europe not marred by delays this summer – have jumped 20%. The jump is such that if there is any problem at all, it is finding enough workers to staff the industry. In recent months, resorts and hotels have been recruiting Ukrainian refugees to help fill positions.

“As of March 2, there were nine direct flights from the US to Athens each day. It was a game changer,” Kikilias added. “About 500,000 Americans are expected to come through November. They spend a lot and with the dollar to euro exchange rate they can spend even more.”

Greece earned €18.2 billion in tourist revenue in 2019 and just over €10 billion last year when Greece opened its borders in May. Speaking to CNN last Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he thought officials would be “pleasantly surprised” after they “take stock” at the end of the season.

“Greece is doing particularly well this summer,” he told the US network. “We have put a lot of effort into upgrading our tourism product, ensuring that all new investment in tourism is sustainable. We have seen that this year the tourist season starts very early and I expect it to end very late.”

In an economy so dependent on the sector – tourism accounts for 25% of Greece’s economic output and one in five jobs – the travel problem that seems to have taken hold post-Covid has had the effect of more than a psychological balm.

Far from the rosy figures, the Greeks know they are in for a tough winter. Inflation hit 11.5% – a 28-year high – this month, according to data released by Eurostat on Friday. In a nation where the minimum wage is €713 a month and around 43% of the workforce cannot afford a holiday, prices have soared.

“There are a very large number of people in this country who work for less than €1,000 a month,” said Nikos Vettas, an economics academic who runs the influential IOBE think tank.

“Greek incomes are lower than average wages in the EU, not least because of the years of crisis,” he added, referring to the austerity that was the price of international bailouts to avoid the debt-ridden nation’s bankruptcy. As such, the price jump came as a shock to many households.

“We are an economy that is still recovering, an economy that has shrunk by 25 percent,” Vettas said. “Although it is now growing faster than many others in Europe thanks in part to tourism, the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine are huge threats that cannot be ignored.”

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