Greece's prized tourists staying home in droves

  • Article by: ALEX WEBB
  • Bloomberg News
  • May 27, 2012 - 5:36 PM

FRANKFURT, GERMANY - German taxi driver Rudolf Kugel, who says he's visited Greece more times than he can count, won't be going again anytime soon to the Mediterranean sunspot because he's concerned about the reaction of the local people.

"They hold Germans responsible for all their misery," said the 62-year-old from near Stuttgart. "You want to go on holiday to have a comfortable break, not to be lynched."

It's thinking such as Kugel's that has contributed to declines of as much as a third in bookings from Germans planning their summer break in Greece, according to Air Berlin and TUI, which owns Europe's biggest travel company. Their avoidance is further exacerbating Greece's economic woes.

Tourism is Greece's largest industry, accounting for almost 16 percent of the gross domestic product in 2011, and almost one in five jobs, according to the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council. The 2.2 million Germans who visited Greece last year represented the biggest national group at 13.6 percent of the total, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, ahead of the British at 10.7 percent.

Germany has increasingly become a target of criticism in Greece, which is struggling to enact mandated structural changes as part of an international bailout and pull itself out of a recession. The country is preparing for June 17 elections after an inconclusive May 6 ballot left parties unable to form a government.

Some Greek politicians have evoked memories of the country's Nazi occupation during World War II after Germany's insistence that Greece adhere to the austere terms of the bailout agreement. The turmoil in Greece has led to speculation that it may abandon the euro.

'You're our big brothers'

The leader of Greece's Syriza Party, Alexis Tsipras, urged Germans during a visit to Berlin last week to show their solidarity by picking his country for their summer vacation. Tsipras has pledged to rip up the terms of Greece's rescue and halt the austerity measures already agreed upon with creditors.

"You'll experience hospitality that is always warm-hearted, to Germans certainly," said Tsipras, whose party led a recent poll of voting intentions for June 17 elections. "We believe our country is part of a great family -- and you're our big brothers."

The Germans need encouragement. Revenue from German tourists declined 61 percent in February, the most recent month for which data are available, while there were 12.7 percent fewer arrivals from Europe's biggest economy compared with the previous year, the Bank of Greece said April 25.

"At the moment I would not go on holidays to Greece," Gerda Lambert, 62, said in Frankfurt. "I want to relax on my holidays, and due to the political tensions in Greece right now, it is not certain that I could do that."

The downward trend in bookings has resumed after a slight resurgence in March, according to Anja Braun, a Hanover, Germany-based spokeswoman for TUI.

"Ever since the discussions about an exit from the eurozone started and the election at the start of May, bookings to Greece have slowed down again," she said.

The declines have been echoed at Air Berlin, Europe's third-largest discount carrier, which has carried 30 percent fewer passengers to Greece this year from Germany, CEO Hartmut Mehdorn said.

Worries only grew after news reports that a 78-year-old Dutchman was hospitalized after an attack by two men in southern Greece who mistook him for a German.

"I don't think that Greeks want to attack Germans," said 53-year-old Kostas Dimitrokalis, who owns five hotels in Santorini, an island formed from the remnants of a caldera 125 miles southeast of the Greek mainland.

"It is all just words in the newspapers, nothing serious. Greeks don't hate Germans."

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