Dispatch, Greece: A quiet Athens

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Acropolis_ Nadine Godwin is visiting Greece and Turkey on a Louis Cristal cruise. Her dispatch follows.

Greece experienced a hefty increase in international arrivals last year, despite news about rioting by Greeks angry over austerity measures that were being forced upon the country to deal with its economic crisis.

Given that the increase was counterintuitive, it seemed like a good idea to join a press trip to Greece, which means I have spent the last days of March aboard Louis Cruises’ ship Louis Cristal, calling at Greek and Turkish ports.

Kyriakos (Kerry) Anastassiadis, the line’s CEO, said Greece saw record arrivals in 2011, up about 11% over 2010, although the numbers for Athens, site of the majority of political unrest, were down “significantly.”

Late last year, the World Tourism Organization said Greek tourism was benefiting from a shift away from the Middle East, where the “Arab Spring” has left travelers with the perception that the whole region is rife with violence and unrest.

However, 2012 is a question mark for Greece, too, because of this year’s fiery riots in Athens and protests outside the capital including on some islands. Anastassiadis estimated the resulting drop in arrivals could be as much as 25%, with Athens again taking the worst hit.

I nevertheless arrived to find a quiet Greek capital. A short pre-cruise visit provided time to see the impressive Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009.

Our group also had dinner in the Plaka district. Louis Cruises’ communications chief, Michael Maratheftis, said he had expected to see more people in the restaurants, but during this crisis, “Greeks are staying home more.”

I asked our guide, Natasha Koliakou, about the buildings that were burned in February’s riots. She said they are “on the other side, by the university.”

We saw none of that, but we did see a curious low-key demonstration in Constitution (Syntagma) Square. Demonstrators want to prevent the sale of the city’s old Elliniko Airport to developers.

In February, there was damage to the marble in Constitution Square. I walked over to look, but many buildings on the square, including the Parliament Building, looked so weary, I couldn’t identify new damage. I am obliged to note that the three hotels that line one side of the square look just fine.

Sailing on the Cristal

Greece parliamantCruisers included a group of 80 Americans: two church groups led by their pastors and accompanied by their mutual tour operator, Sara Chay, owner of Jerusalem Tours International in Columbus, Ohio.

After the February riots, the groups paused in their planning to gain assurances that their tour program could operate safely. Chay told them that each news event is “a moment in a specific place. … The local operator assured us there were no issues, and if issues [developed], we would avoid the area, as we do in Israel,” where her firm also operates tours.

Istanbul was our first port, and most cruisers toured the top sites under glorious sunny skies. Five Greek passengers struck out on their own and returned too late, delaying our departure.

When the husband of one was told the ship might leave his wife behind, his response was along the lines of “Leave her behind. She does this to me all the time.”

Louis Cruises’ port agents transported the fivesome to Izmir, the next day’s port. When they rejoined the ship, they asked if they would be reimbursed for their expenses and/or if they could have a refund for the night they did not stay on the ship.

As you might expect, the answer was, “No way.”

Our first Greek island port was Mykonos, which maintains its charms even though scores of shops on the main drag and in its warren of back streets are filled with souvenirs, and restaurateurs walk into the squares urging tourists to patronize their establishments. Cruisers entertained themselves here without guides.

However, two days later, excursions on Rhodes are canceled (with refunds promised) because the island’s tour guides were on strike. Louis Cruises provided shuttle buses, at 25 euros per person, to the ruins at Lindos, and passengers could walk to the old town area of the capital, Rodos.

Louis Cruises’ communications manager for Greece, Dimitra Vlachou, said such strikes occur “occasionally.” This one, like most work stoppages in the past, was about wages.

Not everything is about the Great Economic Crisis.

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