Letter from Greece: Tourism thrives but the work is tiringWritten by George J. Tanber, TheNewsmeister.com | | firstname.lastname@example.org
ATHENS —It’s been a long morning, and Despina Savvidou is dreaming about an afternoon nap.
That’s not surprising. She’s nearing the end of a three-hour stint guiding a group of five tourists around central Athens and has arrived at the city’s Acropolis, an arduous 150-foot climb. The place is packed to the point where there’s little room to maneuver on the rocky steps leading to the ruins of the marble edifice where Athenians have been gathering since 500 BC.
Cruise ship passengers, Greeks out for a Sunday stroll and taking advantage of rare free admission, and sunny, pleasant weather are responsible for the unusually large crowd.
Savvidou, 58, a straight-talking woman who mixes insightful historical observations with biting social commentary, is annoyed.
“I hate the cruise ships,” she says with a look of great disdain on her otherwise friendly face.
The irony, of course, is that the ships bring tourists and tourism is her livelihood.
Not that type of tourist, Savvidou is quick to point out.
Nevertheless, if the cruise ships stopped coming, Greece would be in trouble. About 16 million tourists visit the country annually. Half of them stop in Athens, usually on their way to one or more of the country’s 170 inhabited islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas. In a country of 12 million people, 700,000 of them make their living off visitors, and tourism accounts for 15 percent of the country’s GNP. As Greece slides toward a recession every bit as serious as the one that has placed a stranglehold on the United States, a healthy tourism industry is a necessity the Greeks can’t afford to have sag. At the moment, that is not the case: The restaurants are full, the cruise ships keep coming, and the islands are bustling with guests, although the number of American visitors has dwindled for obvious reasons.
Savvidou is one of the success stories. For years, she toiled as a tour guide for German visitors. She loved the work, but was not thrilled with her clientele.
“I got fed up,” she says. “I speak very good German, but they never talked to me. And they never smiled. They weren’t friendly, like the Americans.”
So she quit her job and opened Athens Walking Tours in 2005. Her first year, she had 110 customers. Some of them wrote positive reviews to a website called TripAdvisor. A couple of American reporters wrote favorable stories. The next thing you knew, Savvidou was seeking help to keep up with the crush of customers. This year, as the 8-month tourism season draws to a close in two weeks, around 10,000 visitors will have signed on for a walking tour at $50 a person, says Savvidou, who appears incredulous when she repeats the numbers. She employs 10 full-time guides. Since Savvidou hates desk work and would rather be walking the streets with her customers, her husband, Yiannis, has taken over office duties. He has been joined by their son, Aris.
“Really, it’s amazing how this has happened. I’m very happy,” says Savvidou, who is looking forward to winter, when she can take a vacation herself.
At the other end of the spectrum is Yergos, a restaurant hawker in the city’s busy Plaka – the city’s oldest district, located directly below the Acropolis. It’s a neighborhood filled with restaurants, cafes and tourist shops amid a labyrinth of narrow, pedestrian-only streets. Yergos’s job is to get people walking by to eat at his restaurant, where in warm weather most of the customers dine outside.
Each day, the 40ish Yergos starts working at 11 a.m. Eleven hours later, he’s still hawking, although the spring in his step has slowed and the intensity of his pitch has waned considerably. For the effort, Yergos is paid $120, presumably cash [which most Greeks prefer]. More than once during a brief conversation, Yergos repeats how much he makes.
“In Athens, this is very good money,” he says.
It’s money he needs because the cost of living in Athens, where five million people reside mostly in high-rise tenements, is high and quickly escalating. A studio the size of a walk-in closet starts at $550 a month, without utilities or appliances. One or two-bedroom apartments in decent neighborhoods range from $1,200 to $2,400 a month.
So, when Yergos is asked when his day off is, he laughs. “I have no days off. OK, maybe one day a month. But, then, I don’t get paid.”
So, doing the math, that’s 77-hour work weeks. In summer, Athens temperatures often reach the mid-90s or higher. In winter, temperatures plummet, the wind blows, snow is possible, and customers, far fewer, move inside. Not Yergos, the hawker. He prefers the summer.
“In the winter I wear two or three layers of clothes, but I’m still cold. What can you do? This is my job, and the money is good.”
The story is similar in Santorini, the most famous of the country’s islands, an 8-hour ferry ride from Athens. The banana-shaped island, formed from volcanic rock, features several villages consisting of all-white homes and blue-domed churches perched on a cliff top that drops 450 feet straight down to one of the most beautiful, blue water harbors in the world, and a number of unique black, sandy beaches. As a result, five million tourists visit annually. But there are only 7,000 residents to take care of them.
Among them are Dimitris and Nikoleta Vazeou, owners of Aspa Villas, a seven-room boutique hotel in Oia, the most beautiful – and pricey – Santorini village. Nikoleta, 36, remembers when her mother used to rent rooms to backpacking students in the ‘70s for less than a dollar a night. In those days, many of the Greek islanders had fled to Athens for work because the prospect of making a living in the islands was so bleak.
Tourism changed all of that. As visitors arrived by the millions, the residents returned. Some of them, such as Oia citizens who owned property facing the harbor, quickly became wealthy. Others, like the Vazeous, seized upon the opportunity to make a good living and offer their children a better life.
Three years ago they bought their hotel for $750,000, an unthinkable price a decade or so ago. Each month, they make a $6,000 mortgage payment to the bank. Their annual taxes total 37 percent. And, each year they spend thousands improving their hotel to compete with nearby venues that charge two or three times as much [$250-$350 a night] because of superior locations. Still, the hotel has remained full most of this season with budget-minded tourists, and Dimitris and Nikoleta are confident they will succeed.
“I am very happy with the way things are going,” says Nikoleta, a charming and thoughtful host.
The problem is this: Nikoleta has two sons, 11 and 3, who live in the family home 30 minutes away, who require her attention. But she spends between eight and 10 hours a day at the hotel, where Dimitris, 46, fills in when she’s at home. The Santorini season begins in early March and runs through mid-November, so Nikoleta and Dimitris have not had a day off in almost nine months.
“I’m very tired and am anxious for the season to end,” Nikoleta admits.
Recently, she was enjoying a rare dinner with visitors as one of Santorini’s famous sunsets was about to commence. Her back was to the sun. “They told me I was missing the sunset. I told them, ‘I’ve seen it all my life.’”
As she recounted the story, Nikoleta realized how ludicrous her comment must have seemed. She lives in what for many would be paradise, but has no time – or thought – to appreciate its beauty.