Rewind a few years and Greece was drawing daily headlines for its debt crisis, riots, austerity measures and bailouts, with worries about a disorderly default and eurozone exit abounding. Though Greece has receded from international headlines, it has had to continue to move forward after losing 25% of its GDP since 2008, while facing difficult reforms, and indications from officials have been that the economy has stabilized. A recent trip there gives a snapshot of how the country is doing, through the eyes of a tourist.
There’s not a ‘pouf’ left unreserved at this beach (above) and we even caught some vacationers helicoptering in, literally right onto the sand – it’s hard to reconcile the scenes of the ‘good life’ on the island of Mykonos with the recessionary weight that’s been pressing down on much of the Greek populace for the last six years. But each mojito served here is actually helping Greece to dig out of the red: Tourism contributes 16.4% of the country’s GDP and provides jobs for one in five Greeks. Projections are for a record-setting year of international visitors, which really could make a difference for a country trying to lift off of the bottom.
The Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) anticipates 19 million international visitors will come to Greece this year – a figure they recently revised up from 18.5 million, and which would surpass the record 17.9 million they reported for last year. Beyond Greece’s beauty, SETE attributes the uptick to a concerted effort to develop a “strategic roadmap for tourism,” while other reports indicate a boost has come from deflationary forces that have driven prices down and presented good deals for visitors. Not here, though (above), at this Mykonos restaurant Nammos, where dancing on tables with the jet set is gonna cost ya.
Another factor helping tourism’s rebound: The tear gas-filled protests and riots during the height of the country’s debt crisis and the public outrage over austerity reforms have disappeared from streets and headlines. Tourism in Athens suffered substantially as a result of the unrest, when the scene outside of parliament looked like it does in the 2010 photo above, and international arrivals at Athens airport fell by about 850,000, according to SETE. In 2014, the scene outside is placid. Earlier this month when I visited, a tour group could be seen where riot police were once stationed during periods of unrest.
The adjacent Syntagma (or Constitution) square was ground zero for protests and clashes with authorities in 2011 (above, top). Now, it’s filled with tourists and Athenians peacefully passing through (above, bottom).
To the untrained eye, Athens still looks hard hit by blight. For one, there is graffiti all over the city. But graffiti has evidently flourished in Athens for decades, though the New York Times indicates “the five-year economic collapse has spawned a new burst of creative energy that has turned Athens into a contemporary mecca for street art in Europe.” I didn’t see that type of graffiti personally during my limited time there...
... but I did stumble upon this interesting bit of street art: A closed subway station turned exhibit, thanks to metallic silver flourishes adorning it and an electronic sign that flashed between two words: “decomposed reality.”
The decomposing reality of the retail sector is plainly evident walking the streets in Athens. Retail sales fell by about 40% from 2009 to 2013 as a result of austerity policies imposed under terms of the Greek bailout, reports Greek newspaper Ekathimerini.com. According to the Guardian, 65,000 stores were forced to close from mid-2009 to mid-September of 2011.
Designer stores like this Vera Wang bridal boutique (above) do still exist – this one is in the upscale neighborhood of Kolonaki.
But even high-end retailers coexist with plenty of vacancies. Across the street from Vera Wang’s bridal shop, for example, is a row of several shuttered, empty stores (one example above).
Tourists, undoubtedly, get a prettier view of the country (the island Folegandros pictured, above), but the real picture is more complex. Greece’s central bank has said it expects the country to exit its recession this year, growing by about 0.5% while an Athens think tank recently increased its forecast to 0.7%. In July, the Greek stock market had its first IPO since 2009, and Greece returned to the bond market in April. Yet the jobless rate remains extremely high – stuck at 27.8% in the first quarter and unchanged from the prior three months — and the country remains the eurozone’s most indebted, with sovereign debt of 174.1% of GDP.
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