Despite the financial troubles and the refugee crisis that afflicted Greece last year, the country somehow managed to enjoy a bumper tourism year. Patrick Whyte looks at why and what that means for 2016.
Queues of people waiting outside cash machines; a political stand off with the rest of Europe and the ongoing refugee crisis. Few could argue that 2015 was a very difficult year for Greece.
The carefully cultivated image of a laid-back tourist paradise was dented by recurring negative news stories, which dominated much of the UK press last year.
The situation was apparently so bad that the Daily Express ran a story suggesting that plans were being drawn up to evacuate British tourists.
It would understandably seem strange to many then that, according to recent estimates by Euromonitor, Greece enjoyed a bumper 2015.
Arrivals from the UK are predicted to have reached 2.4 million last year – a rise of 4.9% on 2014’s official total.
This is supported by figures from the Greek government, which suggest that arrivals up until September 2015 increased by 9% for all destinations, and by 17% from the UK.
Christina Kalogera, UK director of the Greek National Tourism Authority, told TTG the improvement was likely to continue in 2016 with bookings this last week up by single digits year-on-year.
“The early indications are really encouraging as they show that 2016 will most probably be another great year for Greek tourism,” she said.
She also dismissed the impact of bad press coverage.
“Greece is and always will be a favourite holiday destination for UK visitors,” Kalogera insisted. “I don’t think all the news in the media affected Greek tourism as much as you think.”
An influx of refugees overwhelmed the country
So 2015 was actually a perfect year for Greece tourism then? Not quite, says one Greece specialist.
At this point last year, bookings were steadily flowing in for tour operator Sunvil. They then started to slump around the time stories of cash machines running dry hit the headlines and were also affected when the arrival of thousands of refugees made some question Greece as a holiday destination.
Given the tumultuous year the country suffered in 2015, Sunvil chairman Noel Josephides is understandably wary about being too confident this year.
“I’m more hopeful that as we get into May and June [this year], where we started having the problems [in 2015], they wont recur. So unless we have some other disaster we should have a much smoother year rather than that enormous dip we had in June,” he told TTG.
“In [that month] alone, in unsold seats we lost £250,000.
So I’m very pleased that we’re running at the same [as last] year because we started well… and hopefully we will not have the same ongoing problems.”
His hopes may not be realised though. Although Greece’s debt problems appear to have been solved, the refugee crisis is likely to continue.
The Syrian civil war, along with other conflicts, is forcing thousands of people to look for a better life in Europe. For many of them this leads to the Greek islands.
The holiday island of Samos, where Sunvil flies to, was last year welcoming 1,500 migrants a day from nearby Turkey. A year on, Josephides says the facilities on the island have been drastically improved, and he is hopeful that a repeat of last year – when the island’s limited resources were overwhelmed by the influx of refugees – is less likely.
Greece is also set to benefit from high-profile new flights. British Airways will start flying to both Chania and Kalmata from April 30 for the summer season.
Although data specialist OAG reports that the number of scheduled flights over the summer for Greece is slightly down on 2015 (12,467 versus 14,825), more frequencies will likely be added by low-cost carriers at the beginning of the summer.
Josephides says the relatively short notice given by some carriers puts tour operators in a difficult situation.
“You don’t get to find out about this extra capacity, especially from the no-frills and scheduled carriers, until about March. And we have to plan a lot further in advance.
“But so far, so good. We’ve cut back a bit on our seats. We’ve got a better balance so I’m hoping it will be a successful year.”
Another issue that could see tourists heading to Greece in even greater numbers is the turmoil – and terror threats – faced by other popular tourist destinations.
The Foreign Office is still warning against travel to Tunisia following last year’s tragic beach massacre in which 38 holidaymakers were killed – and airlines are still not able to fly to the popular resort of Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt.
Nearby Turkey is also suffering from the impact of terrorism. Last week an attack on a popular tourist spot in Istanbul killed 10 people.
Kinda Chebib, lead analyst at Euromonitor International, said: “The explosion in Istanbul’s most prominent tourist attraction… is expected to impact negatively on inbound flow to Turkey in the short-to-medium term.”
Understandably, given the country’s own recent problems Kalogera is reluctant to talk up Greece’s position as a so-called safe destination.
“I think that probably a lot of Mediterranean destinations will benefit from this situation but we can’t know that as a fact for sure – we like to believe that Greece is growing independently anyway.”