Greece's economic troubles today are a cautionary tale that proves the truth of Shakespeare's aphorism: Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be. In this case, Greece is the borrower, and the Common Market (European Economic Community, or EEC), is the lender. Since entering the Common Market in 1981, Greece has borrowed billions from the Common Market that it can't repay.
Starting last year, the Common Market began to insist that Greece stop borrowing and start paying. The Greek government began to institute harsh measures to cut expenses so that repayment of loans could begin. Many Greek trade unions and a wide range of Greeks protested, often in demonstrations in the streets which turned into riots. In July, the Common Market swallowed hard and authorized yet another loan to Greece -- although no one thinks that Greece can repay the loan.
How Did These Economic Problems Arise?In 1981, Greece entered the Common Market. In order to be accepted, Greece fudged the statistics on its economic situation, creating a rosy, inaccurate picture. The Common Market -- hoping matters would improve and not realizing the full extent of the problem -- turned a blind eye on Greece's inflated economic figures. As a new Common Market member, Greece received lots of money, some as grants, most as loans.
New roads were built, new hotels were built, even the smallest villages suddenly had what one of my friends here in Greece calls "the staircases to nowhere" -- monumental stepped walkways that were usually built where there was no discernable reason for their existence. The fat years were fat indeed, but because Greece's economic situation was very shaky, Greece could not repay its loans. Then the lean years set in.
Greece continued to borrow more to pay off the loans or the interest on the loans. Unemployment soared to as much as 40% among 20- to 30-year-olds, including many of the country's new university graduates. And by 2010, Greece owed the Common Market around €340 billion. Grudgingly, the Common Market finally gave Greece another loan (this one for €110 billion) in the hopes that this would allow Greece to begin at least to pay off some of the interest on its loans.
The Greek government began to pass increasingly tough measures of an austerity program to reduce government spending: salaries would go down, pensions would go down, taxes would go up. In a country in which as much as half the workforce works for the government in one way or another, and very few citizens pay the taxes they owe, these measures frightened and infuriated most citizens. Greeks were indignant at suggestions that the government might sell off the country's ports, airports, utilities, and banks to raise money to pay its debts. The trade unions galvanized and many Greeks in Athens and other major cities took to the streets in demonstrations, some of which turned into riots in the winter of 2010 and again this summer.
As in Barcelona, many demonstrators said that they were the "Indignant." As the Greek government and economy teetered on the brink of absolute disaster, the Common Market on July 2 authorized yet another massive loan of some €12 billion. No one knows what will happen next, with one exception -- no one thinks that Greece can pay off its massive debts. Will Greece default on its debts? Abandon the euro? Leave the Common Market entirely? Or will the Common Market, cursing not so quietly, ultimately allow Greece extension after extension on its debts Â? possibly allowing Greece to default on most of what is owed? As the saying goes, stay tuned.
How Does This Affect Travel to Greece?
Tourism in Greece is down at least 15% since last year. If you are planning a trip to Greece in the near future, you'll probably get an especially warm welcome and you may find summer hotel prices less than usual. If you've been to Greece before, you know that the unexpected is the one thing you can expect here: power outages are common due to problems on the line and strikes, museums are often closed when they should be open (often because staff has not been paid), buses make unscheduled stops and omit scheduled ones, and so forth. What you are probably in for this summer is a bit more of the same.
Travel Safety: Demonstrations & Strikes
Obviously, if you are in Athens or another main city and there is a big demonstration, it would be foolhardy to go have a look -- unless you do not mind the possibility of inhaling some tear gas. The British, American, and Australian foreign services warned nationals about going into Syntagma Square when this June's demonstrations were going on -- and on July 1, the Australian Foreign Service issued a travel advisory suggesting caution while visiting Greece.
How to Handle Strikes on Vacation
There will probably be more strikes this summer and autumn, so you may find yourself having to readjust some travel plans if bus, train, Metro (subway), and airlines are again affected. If you don't usually travel with a cell phone, this would be a good time to pick up one when you get here. There seem to be phone shops on virtually every street in Greece. You can usually purchase a phone and several hours of time for around €30. Below, you'll find some useful phone numbers and websites for information while you are in Greece. If you do not have a BlackBerry or a laptop, just head for an Internet café to check the websites.
How to Deal With Airport Strikes: If there is an on-and-off strike at the airport, arrive early for your flight. Often airlines will overbook the flight. If you want to be sure of a seat -- even if you have an assigned seat -- arrive early. And take as much water as you plan to drink; the crowded airport has been known to run out of bottled water during strikes.
How to Deal With Ferry Strikes: If you are traveling by ship around the islands, have a look at alternate schedules to get where you are going. That way, when your boat from Piraeus to Sifnos is canceled, you can make a taxi dash for the port of Rafina, catch a boat to Paros, and from Paros, join other Sifnos-bound passengers in renting a caique for the crossing to Sifnos (as a friend did last week). Who knows? That caique trip may turn out to be the highlight of your Greek holiday.
Travel Agents: Using an experienced local travel agency for your arrangements can be a life-saver. I recommend Sharon Turner (email@example.com) of Windmills Travel, who, in addition to doing all the usual travel services, can arrange transfer services (airport/hotel, hotel/port, and so forth) throughout Greece, as well as helicopter charters for everyday travel, or when travelers encounter strike or emergency situations. A friend, who is an experienced business traveler suggests Iniohos Travel (www.iniohostravel.gr). He also recommends using a limo from the "not cheap but worth it" Hellenic Travel Club (firstname.lastname@example.org) if there is a public transport strike and you cannot get to the airport. Or as soon as you learn of the strike, get your hotel to book you a taxi for the trip.
Useful Police and Tourist Police Phone Numbers
- 100 -- Emergency, Police
- 171 -- Tourist Police, Athens
U.S. and British Greek Embassy Phone and Website Information
American Embassy (athens.usembassy.gov)
- tel. 210/721-2951 (non-emergency workdays)
- tel. 210/720-2419 (8:30am-5pm workdays, emergencies)
- tel. 201/729-4301 or 201/729/4444 (after-hour emergencies)
British Embassy (ukingreece.fco.gov.uk)
tel. 210/727-2600 (non-emergency or emergency)
Useful Websites for Travelers to Greece
Get the latest updates and info on strikes by checking these websites.
Athens International Airport (www.aia.gr)
Aegean Air (www.aegeanair.com) Experienced travelers here often find that Aegean Air seems to list flight cancellations due to strikes earlier than most other airlines. Check their website and/or phone Aegean at tel. 210/626-1000; then use the English speaking staff.
Olympic Air (www.olympicair.com)
Greek Travel Pages (www.gtp.gr) wide information on transportation, hotels, etc.
Living in Greece (livingingreece.gr) a very helpful website with good information on strikes.
OpenSeas (www.openseas.gr) Ferry information
Kathimerini (www.ekathimerini.com) English language version of Athens newspaper Kathimerini.
Xpatathens.com (www.xpatathens.com) This resource for foreigners living in Athens is often useful for visitors.
U.S. Department of State (www.travel.state.gov, )