Travels in a Troubled Greece
Rick Steves: The country's economic problems are deep and real. So does Greece remain an enjoyable place to travel?
09.07.10 | 12:59 PM ET
I just got back from eight days in Greece—Athens and the island of Hydra—updating my guidebook there. Before my visit, people were concerned that my trip would be complicated by the country’s “economic meltdown.” (A magazine I write for didn’t want to run my article on Greece, fearing that it would inspire its traveling readers to venture into trouble.) As has been my standard operating procedure lately, I wanted to go to Greece to get beyond the media hysterics and see for myself the truth—to experience firsthand the effect of Greece’s economic problems on travel there. Greece remains an enjoyable place to travel, but it does help to have some background in what’s going on there.
There’s no doubt that Greece has its economic problems. It has lived beyond its means, worked too short, retired too early, consumed too much, produced too little, enjoyed too much job security, created a real-estate bubble with overvalued properties, and funded too much on a growing deficit. Many other countries (including the United States) are plagued by these same problems, but Greece is an extreme case, with extreme consequences.
The Greek government is scrambling to salvage its economy. It’s getting more serious about collecting taxes. And those taxes are higher: From the beginning to the end of 2010, the Greek VAT (Value Added Tax, a national sales tax) will incrementally rise from 19 percent to 25 percent. This means everything people consume will cost more, because 25 percent of what they pay is going to the government to rescue the economy. Complicating matters: Many businesses have gone bankrupt because of the crisis, so there’s less competition—which means higher consumer prices.
What about all that violence in the streets? Strikes and demonstrations have long been a way of life in Greece. Most Greeks see a general strike as an excuse for an impromptu holiday. But there is a tiny anarchist fringe element that knows a peaceful demonstration or rally by teachers or doctors at Athens’ parliament building will have media coverage. And a handful of troublemakers will “come out to play with their friends” (as locals term it), and things become violent. Like back home, when it comes to TV news, “if it bleeds, it leads”; Greek and international media outlets embrace anything violent and exaggerate it. People who don’t get out much overreact, offering the anarchists behind those actions huge rewards.
What’s the future? Greeks are optimistic by nature. They realize they’ve dug themselves into a pretty deep hole. But they also know they’ll get through their “tough economic times.” And they understand that a reality check—which will come with some brutal belt-tightening—is necessary. The biggest culprits of Greece’s notorious largesse are government employees. They have cushy jobs, 100 percent job security, and great benefits. In the public’s eye, they get in, make too much money, and—because they know they can’t be fired—just luxuriate away their work lives in worry-free comfort. There’s a huge anger about economic scandal and corruption, as maddening cases fill the news almost daily.
Simply put, Greece’s adjustments to its new economic reality won’t be fair. For instance, if you turned 60 in 2009, you’re comfortably retired. If you turned 60 in 2010, you’ll need to work seven more years. People are angry about that, but there’s nothing they can do. Young, well-educated, multilingual people feel that they’re overqualified for what Greece has to offer, and are tempted to go abroad in search of employment to match their skills. This potential “brain drain” of bright young people is yet another of the many challenges the new Greece will be dealing with.
What about the practical effect on tourists? Strikes are nuisance strikes—just a day or two here and there, and generally not prolonged. Regardless of the economic challenges, people still need to get to and from the islands, and they still need services once on those islands.
There will be destructive attempts to grab headlines and express anger at corporate and government sources of local frustration. (Anarchists burned two Starbucks in Athens. Other branches, realizing they were targeted, closed up shop.) But, as of this writing, the violence is relatively easy to avoid. Unlike the frightening, random “suicide bombings” of marketplaces that we hear about in the Middle East, in Greece, any violence has been done with notice and generally at off-times—they’ll call the newspaper at 4 o’clock in the morning, just before they bomb an empty bank building (their target is the institution itself, not the people inside). And virtually all demonstrations or acts of violence have taken place solely within one small, high-profile area of central Athens, and have not affected the main tourist attractions (islands and ancient sites) elsewhere in Greece.
I had a great visit to Greece. Based on my mid-2010 experience on the ground in Athens and out in the islands, Greece is the same old place. My company is taking more tours through Greece then ever (our 2010 program is particularly hot), and they’re bringing home happy customers. The museums are still open. When I asked a Greek friend about this, she responded, “Why would we close the Acropolis? It would make no sense. Tourism is an important part of our economy. People pay to see it. That’s why they are here.”
In my mind, the biggest impact of the crisis on anyone considering visiting Greece is the satisfaction you’ll get from contributing to the economy of a nation dealing with tough times, and the joy that comes with a tourist industry that really appreciates your presence.
If there’s a positive outcome from all of this, it’s that Greece’s economic irresponsibility has inspired politicians and political movements across Europe to get real with their economics. In the U.S., throughout Europe, and elsewhere, the cautionary tale of Greece has sparked a sweeping realization that government pork, corporate corruption, and personal production relative to consumption needs to be re-calibrated.