Hope in a Greek tragedy

Athens wants to shake its tourism industry’s image of sun, sand and sex, writes Helena Smith.

It’s 10pm on a Friday on the island of Zakynthos and the main drag of Laganas – party resort, hedonists’ delight, Greek playground par excellence – is alive with the sound of music. Above the hubbub, a group of inebriated young Britons make their way unsteadily up the street chanting: ‘‘It’s full of shit, it’s full of shit.’’

Surveying the scene from her ceramics shop, Vasso Georgiadou heaves a sigh of resignation. ‘‘When they don’t drink, they are such good kids,’’ she says, adding that by the time the sun rises ‘‘there’ll be hundreds of them’’ wandering the resort in a drunken stupor. ‘‘But it’s not only their fault. Unfortunately, this is the tourism we Greeks have tolerated, we Greeks have gone out of our way to create.’’

Just like towns on Corfu, Rhodes, Kos and Crete, the once peaceful village of Laganas has managed to scale new heights in debauchery.

‘‘This is not the best image, but then Laganas is not Greece,’’ says the Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism, George Nikitiadis. ‘‘Many times it is the system, the tour operators who co-ordinate these bar crawls, which makes these kids act in this way. We don’t want tourists to leave with this experience. Our country has so much more to offer.’’

So where has the tourism industry in Greece gone wrong? ‘‘The sector went wrong in every way that Greece went wrong,’’ Nikitiadis says.

‘‘There was no strategy, no methodology, no preparation, no business plan. The markets, the tour operators, the travel agencies, the airlines, they all came to us. We didn’t go to them.’’

This year, Athens has gone to them, acutely aware the 12 million tourists who visit Greece annually will offer the single biggest relief to an economy crippled by recession.

With tourism accounting for 18 per cent of gross domestic product, and one in five Greeks working in the field, the Prime Minister, George Papandreou, has frequently declared it will be the motor to drive the economy forward.

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But first, there is the little problem of Laganas – and the hoary image of sun, sand, sea and sex that Greece, since the onset of mass tourism in the 1960s, is often associated with.

Greece attracts 52 per cent of its visitors between July and September and the overload has put immense strain on an infrastructure finding it increasingly hard to cope.

On the Cycladic isle of Koufonisia, tourists were left stranded in July, not because the local boat failed to show up but because its only cash machine ran out of money.

For too long, Nikitiadis sighs, the industry was dominated by political patronage. ‘‘It was all about party influence and political favours. It was crazy. Now, little by little, we are trying to make that system disappear but it’s not easy. Similarly, we’re trying to prioritise alternative forms of tourism, like agritourism and religious tourism, to encourage visitors to come all year round.’’

- Guardian News & Media

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