Lured to Greece by sun, sights and big hotel discounts

The sun was blazing above the Acropolis, draping the ivory pillars of the Parthenon in a golden sheen. The red-tiled roof of the ancient Agora museum glimmered in the heat, and a breeze ruffled the boughs of olive trees. On the rough cobbles of Plaka, a cafe-lined tourist area, crowds of camera-toting visitors paused to soak it all in.

Kostas, a waiter at the Diodos taverna, which offers a splendid view of the scene, smiled. A year ago, amid a political and economic crisis that fueled protests in central Athens, Greece, and pushed Greece toward the brink of exiting the eurozone, the surrounding streets were hauntingly empty. But on a recent Saturday afternoon, Kostas, who only gave his first name, was scrambling to find an empty outdoor table to accommodate patrons.

“Greece is back!” he exclaimed.

If last summer was a dark spot for tourism in this crisis-hit country, travelers are returning in greater numbers this year, lured by discounts of up to 20 percent on hotels in major cities and on Greece’s stunning islands, as well as assurances — at least for now — that Greece won’t be ditching the euro and returning to the drachma after all.

“The Greek government is stable, and we are no longer under speculation that Greece will leave the euro,” said Xenophon Petropoulos, a spokesman for the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises.

With reports of anti-austerity protests last year and early this year fresh in people’s minds, however, the first question being asked by travelers is whether it is safe to visit Greece. The short answer is yes.

“You may have activity in Syntagma Square,” Petropoulos said. “But 500 meters away, people are drinking beer in Plaka.”

Indeed, the number of demonstrations has dropped and, as Petropoulos noted, they are largely confined to Syntagma Square. Recently, some Americans asked this reporter about the far-right Golden Dawn group, which has used violence against ethnic immigrants. But locals are pushing back with protests and occasionally direct confrontation, resulting in a mild decrease in the group’s vigilantism. There have been no reports of violence toward tourists.

These days, the main nuisance for travelers is likely to be transportation strikes to protest austerity measures. They have sharply diminished but still pop up sporadically on the Athens metro, among air traffic controllers and on ferry boats to the islands.

Visitors are advised to check the Living in Greece website, livingingreece.gr/strikes, for updates and to consult the websites of their national Athens-based embassies for strike, safety and other information before traveling. (The U.S. Embassy website is athens.usembassy.gov)

Greece sorely needs the business that tourists bring. The economy has shrunk by more than 20 percent in the last five years, and unemployment recently topped 27 percent.

The government is still laboring to repay international loans, and many average Greeks continue to feel the effects of an austerity program that has cut incomes and fanned social hardship.

Hotels drop prices

Despite the travails, Greeks remain welcoming. The country hopes to draw in more than 17 million tourists this year, after international visits slumped by 5.5 percent last year to 15.5 million, Alexandros Vassilikos, the head of the Athens-Attica Hotels Association, said.

Hotel prices in Athens and its suburbs have dropped an average of 45 percent in the last three years, as have room rates on numerous islands, he added. Hotels near classical sites just a few hours’ drive from Athens have also cut their prices, including Delphi and the well-preserved ancient theater at Epidavros, where some of the first Greek tragedies were performed.

Already, reservations for hotels and cruises through July are up about 20 percent over last year. Tourism from the United States is also rebounding. Through the first few months of 2013, flights originating in the U.S. were up double digits from a year ago, aided by a drop in ticket prices and a strengthening dollar, Jeremy Boore, an analyst at Expedia.com, said.

On a recent weekday, tourists jammed onto a Blue Star Ferries boat, which left from the Port of Piraeus outside Athens and wound its way toward Santorini. The boat was filled to capacity to accommodate travelers who had been stranded in Athens the day before because of a ferry strike.

Although it is famed for its high lava cliffs and whitewashed houses, even Santorini is working to burnish its image and recapture visitors.

The island’s tourism board has proclaimed this year the Year of Gastronomy dedicated to “the fruits of the dry volcanic land.” Food festivals will be held throughout the summer, linking tavernas and high-end restaurants with wineries and romantic hotels.

At the Angel Cave Houses, one of the many lodgings overlooking Santorini’s caldera, rooms were almost completely booked from May to July, said Athanasia Chalari, a manager. She was offering up to 20 percent discounts for nonrefundable bookings, after offering 50 percent discounts last year.

“Little by little things are coming back,” she said.


Greece’s creditors close to writing off some of its debt

Greece‘s international creditors are edging closer to accepting that they will have to lighten the country’s monumental debt burden if its shattered economy is ever to be fully rehabilitated.

In an implicit recognition that the eurozone’s weakest member state will never recover unless some of its debt is forgiven, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, said that Athens’ debt pile, projected to reach a staggering 185% of GDP this year, would remain high “well into the next decade”.

“The assurances from Greece’s European partners that they will consider further measures and assistance, if necessary, to reduce debt to substantially below 110% of GDP by 2022 … are welcome,” she said at the weekend in a statement approving the disbursement of extra €1.7bn (£1.5bn) to the country.

Largarde’s remarks came in the wake of the strongest evidence yet that eurozone nations providing the bulk of Greece’s €240bn rescue funds – the biggest bailout in western history — were also coming round to the once off-limits option.

The prospect of restoring debt sustainability through “official sector involvement” – or any other measure — has been fiercely resisted by Germany and others as it would mean European governments incurring losses on bailout loans. But the Greek finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, confirmed that the issue of debt relief had been raised during a visit by Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem last week.

“Our goal is to produce a primary surplus by the end of the year,” he said, referring to the surplus that the government can achieve before debt repayments. “We want to do that so that we can ask for the appropriate measures to be activated by the Eurogroup to bring the debt down. [Dijsselbloem] repeated that this was something the Eurogroup would consider. He verified our plans.”

Flying into Athens ahead of a review of the country’s finances by auditors from the EU, ECB and IMF this week, the Dutch politician told reporters that the country’s fiscal adjustment programme was on track, saying sweeping budget cuts and tax increases were finally paying off.

Stopping short of elaborating on what form debt relief would take, Dijsselbloem suggested that the Eurogroup could discuss the issue next year, provided that a primary surplus was recorded first. Loan instalments from creditors are due to end in May 2014.

“If Greece fully complies with its commitments, then we will be ready to do more to help it,” he said. “We will meet sometime before the summer [of 2014] to examine what more Greece might need, always under the condition that the targets that have been set are achieved.”