Greece, long loved by tourists for its white-washed chapels, sun-kissed islands and turquoise Mediterranean seas, is trying to shake its new image as Europe’s frontline state in the migrant crisis.
At Berlin’s ITB, which bills itself as the world’s leading travel trade show, Greek tourism professionals are at pains to stress that their crisis-battered country remains a premier holiday getaway.
“We believe that 2016 will be even better than last year because if there were some problems last year on some islands, there is now a return to stability,” said Greek Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura.
“Measures have been taken at the European level and the number of refugee arrivals has declined,” she said, providing an optimistic take as Greece continues to play host to tens of thousands of refugees in tent cities and shelters.
For Greece — long battered by recession and a drawn out financial crisis — tourism is a lucrative and vital sector, making up some 20 percent of gross domestic product and accounting for about one in five jobs.
Greece’s beloved islands, among them world-famous Corfu and Santorini, have long depended on cruise ships and package holiday companies that every year deliver sun-starved Germans, Britons and travellers from elsewhere around the world.
But in recent months the islands especially of the eastern Aegean, some just a few miles off the Turkish coast, have become the EU’s main gateway for refugees fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
More than 131,000 people made the perilous crossings since the start of 2016, of whom 122,000 landed on Greek beaches, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Last year, Greek islands took in more than 840,000 migrants.
– ‘Human tsunami’ –
The so-called “human tsunami” has claimed many lives on the high seas, but has also badly shaken the economies of islands that largely depend on tourism.
On some islands, refugee families with young children have languished in appalling sanitary conditions that are a far cry from the images of seaside resorts and beach tavernas advertised on the brochures at the ITB.
Especially on the picturesque island of Lesbos, hoteliers these days often dread the phone ringing, fearing yet more cancellations by would-be visitors who have been put off by news of the human tragedy.
Market research company Euromonitor said some cruise lines no longer stop in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos island, which recorded a 90 percent plunge in reservations according to the Greek daily Kathimerini.
In the Dodecanese archipelago, the island of Kos saw bookings plummet by 40 percent.
Mayor of Kos Giorgos Kyritsis, in Berlin for the trade show, stressed the European dimension of the refugee crisis, bemoaning the impact of “very negative” images showing refugees forced to fend for themselves on the streets of his island.
– Warm hospitality –
“Last year we were completely surprised by the scale of the influx,” he told AFP, adding that now “we want to promote the island via an Internet marketing campaign and social networks”.
However, Kos faces further headwinds as a tourism destination, with plans to set up a migrant screening and registration centre, dubbed a “hotspot” in EU parlance.
“We don’t want our island to be associated with a camp for migrants,” said deputy mayor in charge of tourism Elias Sifakis.
There is a silver lining for the tourism sector: some believe Greece’s reputation for offering warm hospitality will be bolstered by the crisis, Europe’s largest migrant influx since World War II.
While much of Europe is eager to slam the door on migrants, and a series of Balkans countries have imposed border controls, creating a bottleneck in Greece, the country’s people have shown incredible solidarity.
A huge collection organised in Athens has raised tons of food for the refugees.
“The stories showing villagers hosting refugees, providing food and shelter to refugees are very good opportunities to attract tourists,” said Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the UN’s World Tourism Organization.
An online petition with several hundred thousand signatures has even called for the Nobel Peace Prize to go to Greek islanders who have come to the aid of desperate refugees, proposing to symbolically award it to a trio that includes a grandmother and a fisherman from Lesbos.