As demonstrators took to the streets of Athens, causing pandemonium and outrage in major Greek cities four days in a row, a funeral for teen Alexandros Grigoropoulos killed by police over the weekend loses meaning and solemnity. Havoc has spread to an array of local anti-establishment parties, threatening to oust the government at a time of deep anxiety over growing economic gloom.
Greece is a destination that receives on a yearly average 17 million tourists – a number higher than its population. Tourism contributes 18 percent to the GDP and more than 10 percent to the overall employment growth. Tourism has just entered its off-peak season.
Nevertheless, the riots erupted at a time when the government is already facing public discontent over the state of the economy, the poor job prospects of students and a series of financial scandals that weakened consumer confidence.
Local media reports gangs of angry teen mobs looted and damaged hundreds of buildings, including banks and hotels, torched cars and shut down much of downtown Athens. Cops fired tear gas at protesters after the 15-year-old victim was buried in a funeral attended by over 6,000 sympathizers. Hundreds of high school students joined the infamous anarchists notorious for nighttime arson attacks on businesses and cash machines.
Speaking from his office in Athens, SETE (Association of Greek Tourist Enterprises) director general Georgios Drakopoulos, who is also the co-chairman of the Business Council for the United Nations World Tourism Organization, told the eTurbo News this is no major disaster as the press portrayed it. It is an exaggeration, to say so, because over half the Greek media support the opposition (anyway) and want to see a worst situation, according to Drakopoulos. In terms of violence in Greek history, he said they’ve had civil wars to compare this less with.
He said: “In Athens on Saturday, the police had been provoked and youngsters have hurled stones at them. As a reaction from authorities, this tension has escalated in downtown Athens over an area between the universities and the Parliament – where the anarchists usually ignite trouble. The police reacted while trying to protect surrounding banks and business offices.”
Until yesterday, however, protesters have not articulated specific policy goals and the two major parties (the Opposition Socialists and the governing Conservatives) are not far apart on the issues.
Commenting on the riots, Drakopolous said: “This is strange! It is totally unheard of or unusual. We are such a peaceful country where you can send your 5-year-old kid to the kiosk and come back in the middle of the night without any problem. And now we have this right at the town center, because the government has no strength to undermine the parties of the opposition supporting the vertebra arm of the government. The Socialist unrest has reached its highest level. There’s nothing we can do. They’re taking advantage of these demonstrations by destroying everything around and increase tension.” He expects events to temper down after the funeral.
The worst thing that can happen now is when this damages tourism, he said. On the other hand, December is truly a slow season. Some 90 percent of tourists arrive between April and mid-October. Currently, Athens is receiving only business travelers and a handful of domestic tourists coming to the capital for the holidays. There are no international arrivals currently.
More than a major source of income, tourism is a pillar of the national economy, giving competitive advantage in the era of globalized markets. The country is heavily dependent on tourism, which could decline as a result of the global economic crisis. However, it is protected by its membership in the Euro-zone, meaning that it does not face a currency collapse like the one that engulfed Iceland.
SETE’s director general believes the anarchy will not impact the busy summer season, as does the credit crunch. “Summer is too far ahead for the riots’ impact on tourism. The global economic crisis is more likely to impact tourism than what’s going on around here,” he said, adding: “Our biggest problem is the banking system. We face problems with investors. In the last years, we’ve had considerable growth in tourism. Businesses were optimistic. The new laws were favorable for tourism business. A lot of investors were ready to accelerate to a point of exposing themselves to risks at all costs. Until banks have decreased lending…”
“Greece is not Mexico. Therefore, we don’t anticipate a significant decrease because of the financial situation in North America, as we don’t get millions of people who fly down the border. Greece is an entirely different market based on preparation, consideration, planning and fulfillment of a lifetime visit. On behalf of universities in the US, there are programs to Greece with one of our top clients being the Ivy League schools booking classical tours/ philosophy/ history programs. We will continue to increase student back-packers visiting the country and seeing its history as much as we look forward to seeing them travel in style in the future when they become professionals,” said a representative from the Greek National Tourist Organization.
No booking cancellations have been reported just yet following the street violence. But events like Christmas get-togethers have already been canceled all over Athens. Hotel rates will not be dumped instead Drakopolous said they will market value for money.
At the time of press, Aris Spiliotopoulos, current tourism minister representing the new Democracy Party, was in London on business.