Give Greece a chance, say tourist business owners

By Theopi Skarlatos
BBC News, Athens

media captionMeet the Pandrossou Market shopkeepers

Dimitris Thalassinos, 75, is tired. He is serving his last customer before packing up for the day. Most days he is at his shop in Athens' ancient Pandrossou street market for 12 hours.

But today he is leaving early.

"We used to have families coming here, on their way to the Acropolis," he says handing change back to an American student. "Now it's mostly couples. It's quieter now."

Like many others working in the industry he is concerned about the slump in tourism. Although last year was a profitable one, in the few weeks since May's inconclusive elections, bookings have plummeted by 50%, according to George Drakopoulos, general director of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE).

At the front of his store hangs a picture of his younger self, eager to begin a new business.

It reminds him, he says, of how things have changed: "Life is different in the market now. We don't know each other as well as we used to. But we are trying to change that."

Join together

He and his fellow shopkeepers have decided it's time to unite.

Their peak season has already begun and they are not prepared to wait around for a stable government to be formed and come up with a plan of action to save the industry.

The shopkeepers, many in their seventies, have navigated their way through social media and rebranded the market.

Through its Facebook page, each shop owner gets a chance, not only to showcase their products globally, but also to tell their stories through old photographs of the market which they post to the site.

It even has a new logo.

It is a refreshing alternative to the Athens portrayed almost every day in the news: strikes, neo-Nazi protests, people so poor they're trawling through bins for food.

Broadcasts on television screens across the world hardly conjure up an ideal image of Greece as a top tourist destination.

image captionAlexandros Trimis and Nikos Sarilakis from Dopios sample the charms of home


Last week Greece's Central Bank announced a 15.1% drop in tourism receipts compared with the same period last year.

The depressing figures have prompted many Greeks - like the Pandrossou shopkeepers - to do the job of marketing Greece themselves.

Last month New Yorkers would have noticed a huge billboard displaying the turquoise waters of the Greek Mediterranean overlooking Times Square.

It was not paid for by the Greek government, but by a voluntary group called Up Greek Tourism - co-founded by Yorgos Kleivokiotis, a Greek living in Dubai and two others.

Yorgos cannot stand to see his country in the position it is in.

His passion for his homeland inspired him and the rest of his team to raise more than $20,000 through crowdfunding.

"We are not competing with the government," says co-founder Onic Palandjian, who lives in Athens, "but the fact is if ministers were given $20,000, they would never have accomplished this.

"We need to show other Greeks that if each of us tries to do something small for our country, then a lot can be achieved."

Secrets shared

Their message is spreading.

In San Francisco, a group of four young professionals, three Greeks and one Indian, are keen to introduce tourists to the "real" Greece. They have formed Dopios, which means "local" in Greek.

It pairs visitors with Athenian locals.

"We wanted to give people the chance to fall upon the little secrets that no travel guide will tell you about," says Alexandros Trimis, one of the team which is launching the service in June.

"Most Athenians are excited and proud to be a part of their community. They want to share it and show people their city through their eyes."

The country's beaches, its sea and its weather remain unaffected by Greece's troubles and although the country's economic and political structure is tottering, its archaeology, of course, also remains intact.

But still tourist numbers continue to slide.

So far this year there has been 25-30% drop in German tourists alone, according to SETE.

Dionysian attraction

If those tourists are to return, they must be reminded of Greece's positive attributes in a coherent and organised way.

The self-help schemes, like Dopios and Pandrossou Street Market are a nice idea, but may not be enough to create the impact needed to achieve the much-needed substantial increase in bookings.

Peter Economides, brand strategist and founder of the international campaign "Give Greece a Chance", says Greeks have lost their way and now every single Greek must be involved in rebranding their country.

He says the image foreigners have of Greece and its people is Dionysian - fun-loving, but disorderly and chaotic. Like the 1960s film of the novel Zorba the Greek and its wily and anarchic central character, it is a distortion of an idea.

"Perhaps at one point," he says, "it was this lifestyle that attracted the tourists to Greece. But in the mind of many today, Zorba has become everything that is bad - a tendency to be lazy, to cheat, to avoid work."

With tourism representing 16% of the economy, Greece's new government cannot afford to waste time in reigniting the sector it so desperately needs to get through the crisis it is in.

It is no wonder Dimitris Thalassinos is tired after his long shift at Pandrossou street market.

For he and others like him carry a heavy burden.

Not only must they make a living from the tourism industry, they must also attempt to save it and in so doing, give the Greek economy the lifeline it so desperately needs.

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