It was a Sunday and Election Day in Athens last month when I decided to check out with the local restaurants and tourism business people how they looked at the entire picture. Athens wore a deserted look and the tepid atmosphere was a striking contrast of elections back in India.
Actually, there was a fatigue among the people and the tourism industry was anxious, if not on tenterhooks. The Greek financial crisis has brought out certain tenacity in those who run the show there.
The litany of complaints and moping indulged our own travel fraternity over unreasonable taxes seems like a walk in the park with what the Greeks might have to handle starting the 1st of October.
I was informed that a 23% sales tax hike on hotels comes into effect on 1st October. VAT rates are also set to rise n the country. The changes started in June, but the delayed rise was to save the tourism season from higher taxes. The restaurant owners, especially the touristy ones at the foothills of the Acropolis, did brisk business and taxes did not seem to affect them at all. The enchanting Plaka area with its busy restaurant season did not reflect any of the apprehensions some outlets made in the touristy destinations of Mykonos or Santorini.
Many restaurateurs were gnashing their teeth, complaining of confusion due to different taxes on various products. One mentioned that for example, spaghetti without meat will have a 13% tax rate but spaghetti with meat will be taxed at 23, according to the rules notified earlier.
Greece relies heavily on its travel and tourism industry for much of its revenues, making travel a prime taxation target for the government. However, the loan crisis is so intense that the government might have to lean on this industry as well.
Many bed and breakfast joints and apartment owners, who let out apartments to the tourists coming in relentlessly, were apprehensive of the heavy taxes and one even was exasperated with the heavy penalties which would be imposed for non compliance.
If they keep the old prices, then they have to pay the difference for the increase and if they raise it then visitors might think twice about booking. However, figures trotted by officials and sheer crowds thronging the sights clearly indicate that tourists are not discouraged.
In Greece tourism makes up 15% of the gross domestic product and increases that percentage might need just a sure footed ad thought out strategy. The government’s strategy of taxation might be the easy way out, given the circumstances but a number of top hotels and destination boards are contemplating ingenious promotional efforts to crank up more volumes of tourist traffic.
Greece remains a niche destination for Indians, even as well-heeled Europeans started taking a relook at their plans. While the US, the UK, Canada and Australia issued travel advisories, Indian tourists, though not as numerous, have maintained a steady growth. The country is a destination for the experienced Indian traveller. It is fast turning into a honeymoon destination, though families planning to travel through rest of Europe are making more enquiries in search of bargains in the Greek islands.
There are lessons in this for the Indian travel trade and tourism officials in particular. Perhaps the attitude needs to be appreciated by the masses here as well.
How do the Greeks manage the crisis? They have become still more welcoming. Regular travellers have remarked on the welcome warmth of the industry towards tourists which is clearly leaving a mark.
The Oia area of Santorin, famous for its amazing sunsets, has its crowds of Asian brides and couples, posing for photographs and selfies against the sunset and the cool white and blue of the houses and the Caldera and sea beyond it.
Most travellers like to take a break and detour from their vacation on one of the famous Greek isles, such as traffic-free Hydra, whitewashed Mykonos or volcanic Santorini with its famous sunsets. The crisis is over, as far as tourists are concerned, if it was ever there for them in the first place!The author is a freelance writer based in Delhi and a regular contributor for TravelBiz Monitor