Earlier this month, Elon Musk flew to Mykonos, reputedly coughing up €7,000 to enjoy the pleasures of a gold-coloured speedboat for a couple of hours. On nearby Paros, Roger Federer lapped up the rays with his family away from the tennis court while Magic Johnson enthused about his “life changing experience” at the Acropolis and Nicole Kidman thanked “beautiful Greece” on Instagram.
Greece is having a good summer. Just when tourism officials think it can’t get better, it does. Athens is bracing for a million visitors this week; record numbers are flocking to the islands – jellyfish notwithstanding – and there are holidaying celebrities galore.
“This year the whole world is voting [for] Greece,” the country’s tourism minister, Vassilis Kikilias told the Observer. “We have a war in Europe, a pandemic that is still with us, an energy crisis, global uncertainty, inflation, tensions with Turkey and even jellyfish and yet they’re still coming. Arrivals on popular islands are up 20%.”
In the Greek capital it can’t get much better either: after the lost years of coronavirus holidaymakers have returned en masse, teeming through the streets of the city’s historic centre and thronging archaeological sites.
Figures already point to a tourist season that will outstrip the country’s all-time record of attracting 33.1 million visitors – more than three times Greece’s total population – in 2019.
For Costas Lavidas who runs the kebab shop that first made his grandfather famous back in the 1950s, the holidaymakers are a life saver. “What’s certain is that if it weren’t for tourists I wouldn’t have the business that I have,” he said, placing sticks of marinated pork on the grill behind him as queues formed outside the eatery off Syntagma Square in Athens. “Thank God they’re here!”
It’s not only resort islands that are reporting a significant rise in arrivals. Demand for cruises has also rocketed, with over 700 liners expected to dock at Greek ports in 2022. “There has been a 280% increase in the port of Thessaloniki and a 130% increase in Piraeus,” Kikilias said.
Flights into Athens’s international airport – among the few in Europe not to be blighted by delays this summer – have jumped by 20%. The surge is such that if there is any problem at all it is finding enough workers to staff the industry. In recent months resorts and hotels have drafted Ukrainian refugees to help fill posts.
“As of 2 March there have been nine direct flights from the US to Athens every day. It’s been a game-changer,” added Kikilias. “Around 500,000 Americans are expected to come by November. They’re big spenders and with the dollar to euro rate they can spend even more.”
Greece earned €18.2bn in tourist revenues in 2019 and just over €10bn last year when Greece opened its borders in May. Speaking to CNN last Thursday the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said he thought officials would be “pleasantly surprised” once they “did the math” at the end of the season.
“Greece is doing particularly well this summer,” he told the US network. “We’ve put a lot of effort in upgrading our tourism product, making sure that all new investments in tourism are sustainable. We saw this year the tourism season start very early and I expect it to end very late.”
In an economy so reliant on the sector – tourism accounts for 25% of Greece’s economic output and one in five jobs – the travel bug that appears to have taken a hold post-Covid has had the effect of being more than just a psychological balm.
Away from the rosy figures, Greeks know they are in store for a tough winter. Inflation hit 11.5% – a 28-year high – this month, according to data released by Eurostat on Friday. In a nation where the minimum wage is €713 a month and an estimated 43 % of the labour force can’t afford to take a holiday, prices have soared.
“There’s a very large number of people in this country who work for less than €1,000 a month,” said Nikos Vettas, an economics academic who heads the influential IOBE think tank.
“Greek incomes are lower than average salaries in the EU, not least because of the crisis years,” he added, referring to the tough austerity that was the price of international bailouts to avoid the debt-stricken nation going bust. As such, the surge in prices for many households had been a shock.
“We’re an economy still in recovery, an economy that has shrunk 25%,” Vettas said. “Although it’s now growing faster than many others in Europe thanks in part to tourism, the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine are huge threats that cannot be ignored.”