FOOTLOOSE
It’s not Greek to me
Friday, July 27, 2012

Stuart Forster undertakes a travel mission to debt-ridden Greece in order to gauge what impact the euro crisis has had on tourism — and comes back feeling reassured

Greece, we are being told in news reports, is a country in crisis. The southern European nation has public debts of such magnitude — reported at €335.6bn in 2011, and growing daily — that new stories are appearing daily relating to Greece’s impact on the Eurozone and even the global economy. As the summer tourism season gets underway, a significant number of tourists are either cancelling their summer vacations or booking elsewhere.

Tourism, traditionally, is a significant contributor to the Greek economy: 19.5 million foreign tourists visited in 2009, contributing 15 per cent of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — so any drop, particularly when businesses are already feeling the pinch, is bound to have significant impact. Some tourists have expressed fears they might be left stranded without food, while others are concerned they might be caught up in demonstrations.

To get a feel for how things really are I headed to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, 515km north of the capital, Athens.

As I fly towards Greece, the scenes depicting violent demonstrations that have been shown in television news reports are repeating in my mind’s eye. Travelling onwards from Thessaloniki towards Ouranoupolis, I keep my eyes peeled for evidence of a nation in debt and a population on the edge of civil unrest.

Frankly, there’s nothing to be seen that might cause alarm; no obvious evidence of a crisis. As a journalist looking for a story, maybe I should be slightly miffed that uncollected rubbish isn’t piled high nor are there crowds of resentful demonstrators waving placards on the streets. Those, of course, are the kind of scenes that lend themselves well to telling photographs, ones that convey stories of the breakdown in municipal services and effectively depict deep-seated social frustrations. Even the shops are open for business as usual. Everything I see indicates that life is continuing as normal.  

So where is the tension and the unrest that has been portrayed on the news? Where’s the crisis?

My Greek is limited to basic greetings, so I head to a café and seek out English-speaking Greeks in order to ask questions. I want to understand if Greece is a destination that holidaymakers can visit safely this summer.

“There’s sometimes trouble in about four blocks of downtown Athens,” says Alex, a Greek in his thirties. He continues: “The demonstrators meet in that area and if something’s going to happen, it’ll be there. But here in the north and out on the islands, you won’t see anything.”

I’m sceptical. He has to be playing down the protests and problems, surely? On the television news, the unrest seemed significant and widespread. I push him with more probing questions as we sip our traditional Greek coffees towards the sludgy grinds that have settled at the bottom of the cup.

“Really, you can visit Athens and even there, with the exception of a very small area of the city, you won’t see any problems,” he assures.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t have time to head down to the Greek capital to see if that’s true. Yet in the north of the country, throughout rural Chalkidiki and the towns I pass through, it’s clear that the normal rhythm of life remains undisturbed.

In Thessaloniki, people are shopping during the day and going out drinking and dancing at night. In 2009, Lonely Planet ranked the city as the fifth best city in the world for partying and, despite the widely reported crisis, the bars and clubs are still busy. Business appears to be continuing as usual in the hotels and restaurants I visit.

I suspect the country’s economic problems must be making the climate tougher than normal for businesses but there’s no manifestly obvious reaction. If a waiter were to be stroppy or a shop attendant short with me, perhaps I’d be witnessing some kind of reaction to the crisis we’re told is gripping Greece. But, no, that’s not the case.

The closest I come to hearing anyone complaining about the situation is in a bar. “Our politicians are useless. They sit there, down in Athens, and do nothing,” laments the speaker, who prefers to remain anonymous when I ask if I can quote him. From the way he’s talking, I suspect there might be an element of civic rivalry between Thessaloniki and Athens.

I’ve come looking for evidence of a crisis but what impresses me most here in northern Greece is the heartfelt hospitality that I’m experiencing in hotels, restaurants and bars. This is best illustrated in a family-run café in the small town of Stageira, which is located close to Mount Olympus. The ruins of Ancient Stageira, the city in which the philosopher Aristotle was born, back in 385 BC, are just five minutes distant. “We want people to come here and see what we can offer,” says Natasha Mavridou. I only popped in for a coffee but she’s already offered me a slice of bougazou, a filo pastry cake dusted with icing sugar and filled with custard. She then brings out homemade marmalades. This isn’t up-selling, it’s genuine hospitality; she’s keen that I try the food she’s prepared and refuses to take payment for the bougazou.

Whether I’ll be settling my bills in euros or drachmas, next time I’m in this part of the world remains in the balance. That said, any change to the currency used in Greece is unlikely over the next few months. Even if Greece leaves the euro-zone — which some commentators suggest is likely to be avoided if possible, due to the wider impact on Europe — it will take time to introduce a new currency.

The economists are convinced that Greece has big problems. They may be correct but, ultimately, the bigger economic picture has not affected me as a traveller.

The sun is shining, the restaurants continue to serve food and the gas stations are still selling fuel. The bottom line is that I don’t feel as if I’m in a country in crisis. I’d be happy to recommend Greece as a 2012 summer holiday destination to friends and family.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com

Travel basics

Potentially useful travel information can be found a> Visit Greece’s website has information about the country as a whole: 
www.visitgreece.gr/

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