Greece battles to win back tourists amid migrant crisis

12 March 2016
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When Michelle Barns, a 45-year-old English mother of three, booked her family’s summer vacation on the Greek island of Kos last year, she hadn’t seen footage of the migrant influx that later made her consider cancelling the trip.

Kos, a sun-drenched tourist destination in the South Aegean, saw the arrival of over 23,000 migrants last year and images of violent clashes with the police spread around the world, with the island’s mayor warning of bloodshed and Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid describing Kos as a “disgusting hellhole”.

Now Greece, where tourism accounts for a fifth of the 173 billion-euro ($191.17 billion) economy and employs one in five workers, is keen to restore its reputation with tourists.

“It is true that some of the Aegean islands had problems with the migrants last year,” Greece’s minister of tourism, Elena Kountoura, told Reuters at the world’s biggest travel fair, ITB, in Berlin on Wednesday.

“But now, everything is back to normal and as a tourist, all you would see are beautiful places.”

Budget airlines Vueling and Transavia said they had seen a shift in demand away from Greece due to the refugee crisis. Roy Scheerder, commercial director at Transavia, told Reuters the budget carrier had reduced capacity to Greece “quite dramatically.”

The head of Greece’s main tourism association SETE said on Wednesday that direct tourism receipts were expected to grow 5.6 percent to 15 billion euros this year on the back of 25 million visitors and 2.5 million cruise ship arrivals.

But he said those targets depend on the successful conclusion of a review of Greece’s international financial bailout and managing the refugee flows.

To try to allay tourists’ concerns, the Greek government has launched a video campaign on social media platforms, featuring interviews with travelers who assure viewers the islands are calm.

“Last year we were taken by surprise and unprepared for the influx,” said Kos mayor Yorgos Kyritsis at the ITB, where his island has a booth displaying videos of smiling tourists strolling along sunny beaches.

“But migrants that arrive now are immediately taken to the registration centre and then quickly move on to the mainland.”

While Kyritsis expects a 20 percent drop in visitors to his island this year, Greece’s government is optimistic tourists will continue to flock to the country in 2016, surpassing last year’s 26 million visitors and 14.5 billion euros in revenue.

And after being assured by several people on an online travel platform that Kos is safe, Michelle Barns is going ahead with her vacation plans and looking forward to two weeks at a resort on the island.

Reuters

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