Greece economy and tourism
The dogs look up at me expectantly. No, scrap that. They look up at me hopefully. They’ve got a few morsels of food in front of them that they’re devouring and guarding at the same time, the way dogs are wont to do.
Cats roam the corners nearby, climbing over the garbage bins and watching with one eye through their natural pretense of nonchalance.
The animals are hungry. They know they’re hungry. But they don’t know why.
The citizens of Greece, however, they know why. For four years their country has been under financial siege. Unemployment has surged, tourism numbers have dropped and the economy has taken a battering domestically and internationally.
Tourists come to Greece to see the ruins of the ancient world. Now it’s the modern world that is in ruins. One evening at a taverna in Athens, the waiter, Tony, sits down with us for a cigarette and a chat.
“This month, July, is about fifty per cent down on business,” he tells us. “August, I think, maybe about thirty per cent down.”
Tony works two jobs, he says. He gets only three or four hours sleep a night. But he’s not complaining.
It’s more a sense of melancholic resignation I get from him, rather than bitterness or anger. It’s not that he necessarily thinks he and his people are to blame for the situation, just that nobody else is.
The restaurants, the bars, the cafes – they’re all quieter than you’d expect for the middle of summer. It’s not just the tourist trade, it’s locals as well, according to Tony.
“I used to go out more. Now, not on weekends. I stay home. Maybe I go out only on Monday or Wednesday after work.”
At least he has work, though. He’s lucky in that sense. Greece’s unemployment rate is currently at about 22 per cent – even higher amongst the young. And higher in the regional areas outside of Athens.
In the small town of Mykines, about two hours south of the capital, I have no problem finding accommodation. There are more hotels than tourists in a reminder of how things once were before the bad times hit. I choose one, based on a recommendation, and find I’m the only person there.
That evening I walk through reception and hear the owner, Agamemnon, arguing on the phone.
I politely pretend not to notice the raised voice but that’s difficult as it echoes around the empty and dimly-lit room. He comes over to join me a few minutes later.
“Sorry, I have a call about finances,” he starts to explain, unprompted.
“Everyone is angry but what can I do? How can I pay them when I have nothing to pay them with?”
The name ‘Agamemnon’ means a man with a good memory. In this case, the memories are of how good things used to be.
Agamemnon is a young man but still old enough to know how his country has changed. He spent time working in England and Australia but came back to Greece to run the family business when it was still a proper business.
“We had people like you, just turning up, and they would sleep on the terrace, with sleeping bags, because we had no room,” he says.
I look over at the darkened terrace with its unset tables. A skinny marmalade cat is prowling but I’m not sure what it’s hoping to find.
It’s hard to imagine guests sleeping out there, considering I haven’t seen any others in the whole town so far.
Agamemnon tells me he’s glad I’m here. Not for his own business, but because I’m getting to see some of the best archaeological sites in the world.
“The ancient Greeks, they invent mathematics, engineering, alphabet,” he proudly tells me.
“And democracy,” I add, trying to impress him.
“Pfft,” he replies. “We may have invented it but we have forgotten it now. They used to vote for a law and if enough people like it, it happens. Now we vote for people who lie and do nothing the people want.”
You don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find some resentment. But it’s never directed outwards.
In fact, there’s genuine friendliness and hospitality in Greece that might be unexpected, considering the situation.
There’s also hope that things are getting better. There hasn’t been any major unrest of the streets for a while (even though there are still buses of police on several streets of the capital), the new government of Antonis Samaras seems to have stability and a mandate to try to get the country back on track, and the European community appears unlikely to give up on Greece quite yet.
From a tourist’s perspective, the country is open for business and it’s ready to look after any visitors. There’s plenty of availability and prices are low.
And, of course, the things that have always attracted tourists are still accessible -the marvels of the ancient world, the modern culture and the beautiful islands.
You could do worse than visit Greece now while it’s off the radar of many other people. You won’t go hungry.