Monday, 11 June 2018

The Greek tourist industry: some good, most bad, and plenty ugly

Here we go again: Greece is smashing its own records for summer tourism, as it has been doing for the last 4-5 years at least. Year after year, more and more tourists are coming to Greece. As we maneuver our way through our crowded streets and beaches, we wonder how sustainable the situation will be in the future if tourism continues to grow uncontrollably.

Where once apartments housed locals, they have now been turned into tourist accommodation; I saw someone closing off a balcony on a multi-story block just last week, presumably because that space is going to be turned into a room advertised through the likes of Airbnb. As I watch Santorini's cliffsides sprouting new concrete every year, I keep wondering what might happen if an earthquake struck them. (A new Atlantis, perhaps?)

Neighbourhood shops that once sold fruit and veg to the locals are now selling pareos, jandals (flip flops so those of you who don't know what jandals are) and bucket-and-spade sets to the itinerants wandering through what was once a clearly Greek neighbourhood. Thank goodness Hania is still a clearly summer resort town. By the end of September, the (overpriced) pareos will disappear, replaced by bags of wood for heating fuel (€5 will last you for a couple of nights if used sparingly); the (made in the PRC) jandals will go and poker sticks for the fireplace will appear (Jumbo sells them for €4); the (bucket-and-spade sets will be taken down to make way for (more) kids' €2 lucky bags. 

Which leads me to wonder: who can afford to holiday here? Do a quick web search to discover prices for European summer flights, accommodation services (hotels/airbnb) and domestic transportation (ferry services in particular). You can find prices to suit all pockets; but if your pocket is not full, you must fulfill three conditions in order to land a good price: (1) don't travel in the high season (late June/July/August/early September) because it's more expensive, (2) forget the Cycladic islands (Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros) because they are over-booked - unless you (3) book early (the previous year before you come) or land on a special. And if you look poor enough in Greece (at least 'on paper'), you may be eligible for state-subsidised tourist packages. Think of is as living in Tower Hamlets and getting free entry once a year to the Tower of London.)

Tourism, as the industry sells it to potential customers, is becoming more and more absurd. In a recent opinion piece (see, Dimitris Politakis laments over the state of Greek tourism. Greece (especially the islands) has become a playground for the rich while for the average Greek, a Greek holiday is close to unaffordable, unless you have a country home or a relative to house you (etc). Otherwise the summer holiday of the average Greek is likely to comprise a whitewashed roof to avoid the heat, an airy balcony to enjoy the cool evening air once the sun goes down, or an aircon unit whirring away all day while we surf the web on our wifi looking at other people's photos of places we thought we would try to visit this year, but alas did not manage for some reason, usually connected with finances.

Politakis touches on a number of pressing issues concerning the state of tourism in Greece. The most significant one is that as Greeks, we no longer feel that we are on the receiving end of the industry: we are on the other side, as underpaid and overworked labourers catering for the whims and desires of people much wealthier and with more time to spare than ourselves:
"Can't tourism leave us alone in our misery?" he asks. "Sometimes the 'heavy industry' of the country is unbearable, especially when it seems to work against us. Are the islands really still ours? Let's suppose we still have them in our possession. What use are they to you if you cannot visit them when you want, when even the last white-washed roof is booked and/or overpriced?" 
"At least we still have our islands," we used to say as a bitterly optimistic conclusion in discussions among our own people when we talked about the doom-filled prospects of the modern Greek metropolitan life of our recent past which was being swamped and consumed by the European bureaucracy that stagnated it. But even those islands are up for sale, as Politakis points out, continuing his rant of uncomfortable truths about the way Greece - and Greeks - are regarded as a new kind of freak show, which the intrepid traveller is encouraged to rush out to, lest the spectacle dies away too quickly (or blows up): 
"... [We are constantly hear that] 'we' are breaking tourism records. From the sturdy flourishing herds that disembark from the cruise ships in Fira and Oia (for many years, if you spoke to a Santorinian about the crisis, they would laugh their heads off, but karma is a treacherous bitch), to the casual 'neopaganists' who roam Gavdos [the southernmost land mass in Europe off the southwest coast of Crete], the old-fashioned tourist 'cutouts' in Plaka ... forming the newly built and awkward-shaped shaped downtown...  [a] panspermia of tribes and ages among the foreign visitors... the bitter and exuberant hype of vulgar exotism that we have been force-fed for so many years, about the "New Berlin" or the "New York of the 1980s", ...the mausoleum-like (and grotesque) graffiti, whose chaotic routine makes you want to scream."
He finishes his rant with an excerpt from Don Delillo's The Names, which describes tourism as 'a parade of nonsense':
"... Being a tourist means escaping responsibility. Errors and faults do not stay attached to you like they do back home. You can wander among foreign continents and languages, suspending all your logical thinking. Tourism is the parade of nonsense. You are expected to be a fool. The entire mechanism of the host country aims for travellers to behave foolishly ... Nonsense is the pattern, the degree and the norm. You can exist at this level for weeks and months without rebuke or serious consequences. Like thousands of others, you are granted immunity and broad liberties. You are an army of idiots in brilliant polyester shades that ride camels and take pictures of each other, devoted, delirious, dysenteric. You have nothing to think of except the next misshapen event... ".
We have probably all fallen victim to this scenario at various points in our life while on holiday. We find ourselves somewhere and we want to experience as much as we can, because we're not likely to visit the same place again - there are so many places to visit! - so we rush from one place to the other, trying to fit it all in, before it's time to go, and all we remember after that is some negative encounter on the metro (you had all your cash stolen by a pickpocket from your backpack, which of course you were wearing on your back). That was the real experience after all, it wasn't natching the last cheap seat on the cheapest route, with a cheap room offer to match.

And it's now the turn of Greece to suffer the same fate as most other highly touristic venues, where hype works its magic by transforming them into a bucket-list destination rather than a place to live your dream. Tourism is no longer an experience that broadens the mind; you do it because it's a fashion, and this year, Greece is trending. As for the Greeks, they should know better than to complain, what with their never-ending crisis and impoverishment...

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.