Greece is hoping to set a new tourism record this year, with arrivals likely to exceed 20 million in a new sign that the country is winning back its top vacation spot reputation as the economy gets back on its feet.
After a poor season in 2012 — a year marked by back-to-back elections, political instability and anti-austerity protests — the tourism industry seems finally to be getting its swagger back.
Last year saw a record 20 million foreign tourists visiting the country, as fears of a Greek exit from the euro receded.
The new forecast from officials is that this will be another record year, a welcome piece of news in a country in a country looking to exit a six-year economic slump and where tourism is a big employer.
Greeks desperately need the cash injections brought by tourists looking for sunshine and to spend their holidays visiting ancient monuments.
Living standards have plunged, many cannot pay their taxes, the unemployment rate exceeds 26 percent and more than half of all young people cannot find work — so a bumper year for tourists would be welcome.
“2013 was a record year. In 2014, every indication shows that we are going to break this record,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told a tourism conference last month. “Get ready for over 20 million visitors.”
A move to reduce tax on food services by 10 percentage points is thought to have helped, while the Greek Ministry of Culture last week said that longer operating hours introduced on a trial basis at 33 museums and sites were already paying off.
“The data shows a major revenue increase,” Greek Minister of Culture Panos Panagiotopoulos said.
The number of visitors to two of the country’s most popular island sites — the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion on Crete — more than doubled in April compared with a year earlier, the ministry said.
The amount of visitors to the ancient city of Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, the Bronze Age stronghold of Mycenae and the Minoan palace of Knossos also increased by more than 40 percent, the ministry said.
Last week, the association of Greek tourism enterprises (SETE) — a leading industry group — increased its visitor estimate for the year from 18.5 million to 19 million tourists, based on a rise in flight bookings. That figure does not include another 2.2 million estimated arrivals from cruise ship packages, which are calculated separately.
All of Greece’s main airports are expected to handle increased traffic this year, with the islands of Mykonos, Skiathos, Cephalonia and Samos gaining prominently, but the biggest flight increase — 122 percent — is expected at the airport of Kalamata International Airport in the Peloponnese Peninsula, which was recently added to the destinations of budget airline Ryanair.
Overall, on average, airline bookings are up 25 percent this year with the biggest increases from Britain, Russia, Germany and Italy.
“There are an additional 4 million flight bookings this year,” SETE president Andreas Andreadis said. “Greece [previously] found itself at the center of negative publicity. With the return of political stability ... negative publicity became positive. This usually happens. Like a spring, when the pressure is released, it swiftly bounces back.”
At the worst point of the nation’s debt crisis, which came after the IMF and EU provided rescue funding tied to radical reforms in 2010, pictures of rioting and fires in Athens frightened many tourists away.