Crisis, what crisis? say tourists flocking to Greece

Greece, despite all its economic and political strife, is heaving with foreign tourists.

Greece's ancient sites and holiday playground islands have been little changed. Photo: Greek Islands via Facebook

ATHENS - At London's Heathrow Airport, a traveller to Greece is offered a deal by Aegean Airlines.

The flight is booked solid, take a different flight and get €400 and a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in Europe.

Some hours later in Athens, a long queue moves slowly forward to passport control, while smiling but harried officials shout out "Santorini", "Mytilene" and the names of other sun-drenched Greek destinations as they try to herd tourists quickly towards connecting flights.

Greece, despite all its economic and political strife, is heaving with foreign tourists.

"On TV they said we can come, there was no problem," said Thibault Larhant, a tourist from Normandy, in France, who was resting at an open air cafè in Athens' Syntagma Square, cooled by a fan spraying water vapour.

Greece's ancient sites and holiday playground islands have been little changed, from a tourist standpoint, by an economic crisis that led to the closure of banks and the country coming within a hair's-breadth of leaving the euro zone.

"Tourism is ... our heavy industry, it is the main economic source of income today and also the main source of jobs for many Greeks," Minister of Tourism Elena Kountoura told parliament this week.

GIVING SUPPORT

Hard numbers for tourist arrivals are difficult to come by because it is only just high season, but there are signs.

Aegean Airlines, Greece's largest carrier, says passenger traffic was up 19 percent in July compared with the same month last year.

The economy ministry, meanwhile, estimates that arrivals this year will exceed last year's record of nearly 21 million. Some estimates put it at around 25 million.

"If the data we have so far is accurate and continues to show this positive trend, Greek tourism will have a positive season for 2015 in relation to previous years," Kountoura said.

This would be a much-needed boost for the economy, albeit one offset by an expected slump in domestic tourism as cash-strapped Greeks stay at home.

Some, though, are aware of the crisis and say they are happy their visiting is helping out.

Standing next to the 11th century Orthodox church of Kapnikarea, in Athens's Monastiraki district, Claire Murray from Lancashire, England, said she and her husband were coming to Greece twice on holiday this year, in part to give support.

"We like it. It is a lovely place," she said.