The buskers are out, hotels are full, archaeological sites are heaving, shopkeepers are smiling, and good luck if you want a table in a decent restaurant.
It might be April but Athens is alive to the sound of tourists. In all his years keeping watch over 1st-century BC ruins, Stelios Ballas, who is in his 50s, can barely recall so many visitors picking their way through the scattered antiquities of the Roman agora.
“These past few weeks have been something else,” he says from his guard’s cabin nestled under a plane tree. “I talk to some of them and they seem to be from everywhere. The thing is, do they have money and are they willing to spend it?”
Around the corner on Adrianou Street, the Greek capital’s oldest commercial thoroughfare, restaurateurs are not asking that question – for now. Not since 2019, when Greece attracted a record 33 million holidaymakers, has business been as good.
“If it goes on like this we’ll be talking about a brilliant year,” smiles Vassilis Stathokostopoulos, who runs the recently upgraded all-day bistro Ydria. “Perhaps it’s our new chef but people are not only coming, it’s clear that after everything we’ve all been through, they want to have a good time. And for that they’re willing to dig deep into their pockets.”
In a country so dependent on tourism – the sector accounts for 25% of Greece’s economic output and one in four jobs – the rebound has surprised even those who are in the business of being optimistic. Athens has seen more upheaval in recent years than other EU metropolises, hit first by a near decade-long financial crisis that made its streets synonymous with protests and riots before the coronavirus struck.
The pandemic-induced hiatus resulted in tourist revenues dropping from €18.2bn in 2019 to €4bn in 2020 when, in a record slump, the nation logged only 7 million arrivals. Although earnings from the industry exceeded €10bn, better than expected, last year when Greece opened its borders in May, they were still well short of pre-pandemic takings.
But this year, despite the unexpected spectre of war returning to Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, industry figures are confident that recovery has finally come. For the first time since 2019 cruise ships are pulling into Greek ports – testimony, say industry officials, to the desire of travellers to put the pandemic behind them. Pre-paid flight bookings are also on the rise.
“All omens look positive,” says Andreas Andreadis, a former tourism boss and chief executive of the phenomenally successful Sani/Ikos group of luxury resorts. “For a few weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine demand dropped but since the end of March it has picked up and is now excellent.”
Holidaymakers, he says, are still less inclined given the spread of Covid to travel long-haul, preferring destinations in Europe. “And the truth is there are not so many options with quality destinations,” he says.
In an unprecedented step aimed at capitalising on the hunger of people to travel, the tourist season kicked off earlier in Greece this year. Last week, officials announced that pandemic restrictions, including the requirement of presenting an EU digital Covid certificate to enter the Mediterranean nation, would be lifted from 1 May and reviewed in September.
What was seen as Athens’ relatively successful handling of the pandemic last year has also helped revive the sector, despite public health authorities registering a sharp rise in Covid deaths since because of lower vaccination rates.
“The season has begun earlier than ever before,” says Vasilis Kikilias, the Greek tourism minister, noting that the first direct flight from the US, a key market for the economy, flew in on 7 March. “It’s a vote of confidence in our country.”
The decision to open earlier appears to have paid off: bookings soared over Easter. As Greeks also prepare to mark the holiday – returning en masse to their ancestral villages for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic to celebrate the most important religious event in the Orthodox calendar – authorities say they show no sign of tapering off. Airlines, says Kikilias, are not only competing over slots to Greece this summer, but 765 cruise ships are lined up to anchor in ports around the country, with popular island destinations such as Mykonos, Kos and Corfu already drawing crowds.
“It’s a fact borne out by every study that people don’t just want to travel, they need to travel,” says Eugenios Vasilikos, the vice-president of the Panhellenic Federation of Hoteliers. “All the signs point to this being a very good year.”
By 2023, the capital will have acquired an additional 5,000 hotel rooms compared with 2019 when a city once bypassed for the islands managed to attract 5 million visitors.
The investment frenzy, evident in a construction boom now changing the face of downtown Athens, is also indicative of the hopes entrepreneurs have placed in the revival of Greece’s heavy industry.
But Vasilikos, at the hoteliers’ federation, concedes there is little room for complacency. The glimpse of a carefree world that has revisited Athens as tourists amble through its sites and streets is also fraught with the dangers inherent in a cost of living crisis and spiralling inflation rates being felt globally. Unions representing Greeks who earn some of the lowest wages in the European Union have taken to the streets.
“A few weeks ago I might not have been so optimistic,” he says of reservations in the capital. “All the data points to last-minute bookings in our hotels which while costs are rising also have some of the lowest price rates in Europe. People aren’t sure of anything any more. They wait until the last minute, and, in the last minute, anything can change.”