Before the rigors of winter, tourism is picking up again in the Mediterranean

CAPE SOUNION, Greece (AP) — When Stelios Zompanakis quit his job at Greece’s central bank to try his luck in boat racing, his friends and family begged him to reconsider.

Nine years later, he spends his summers on the “Ikigai,” a 53-foot yacht he named after the Japanese concept of finding happiness through a meaningful life.

Week-long vacation trips on his yacht around some of the lesser-known Greek islands – Milos, Sifnos, Serifos, Kythnos and many more – have been booked through October.

“The demand is insane,” said Zompanakis, who recently paced the teak-panelled deck barefoot to trim the sail and check the dashboards as the boat passed the ancient Temple of Poseidon atop a mountain. cliff south of Athens.

Tourism around the Mediterranean is booming. Helped by a strong US dollar and pent-up demand from Europeans to find a beach after years of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the return of the pandemic crisis has been stronger than expected, leading to long lines of passengers. waiting, canceled flights and lost luggage this summer at many European airports, but not in Greece.

“People after COVID, after two years of frustration, probably put money aside and decided they needed a vacation,” Zompanakis said. “And I think the revenue from their budgets that they are willing to spend has increased, which has also brought more quality…and that has helped Greece a lot.”

Greece is on track to break its annual record for tourism revenue. Portugal is also eyeing a full recovery, while late summer data suggests Spain, Italy and Cyprus will end the year just below pre-pandemic visitor levels.

A blessing for southern European economies, the rebound also eases the continent’s tilt towards recession caused by soaring energy prices, the war in Ukraine and the lingering disruption caused by the pandemic.

“For countries like Greece and others like Italy and Spain, they’ve actually produced a lot of resilience over the summer…despite the tsunami that comes from the cost of living crisis and the crisis energy,” said Lorenzo Codogno, chief economist at LC Macro Advisors and visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

Europe’s Mediterranean coast also offers safe and culturally significant destinations, Codogno said, but the good news may not last.

Economic growth in 19 countries using the euro is expected to fall to 0.5% in 2023 from an increase of 3.1% this year, according to a new forecast from the International Monetary Fund.

Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have the highest debt levels in the eurozone relative to the size of their economies and are also facing rising borrowing costs.

Stephen Rooney, senior tourism economist at Oxford Economics, said countries dependent on tourism will end up seeing their industries harder hit next year by the cost of living crisis caused by soaring inflation and high energy bills.

“These challenges are expected to start to bite as we enter the final quarter of this year and into 2023,” he said. “We do not expect the travel recovery to stagnate in 2023, but we do expect it to slow somewhat in 2023 in line with the general economic slowdown, before picking up again in 2024.”

In Athens’ historic Plaka district, tourists still filled the narrow streets during a balmy late October, crowding around ice cream vendors and stopping to browse stores selling leather bags, jewelry, hats and memories.

At Loom Carpets, co-owner Vahan Apikian folded and stacked rugs and laid out shoulder bags for customers, happy that demand remained high well into the fall.

“Business went very well: we had many more visitors than in 2019, which was a record year. This year was even better,” he said.

As the days get shorter and the outlook darkens over the economies of the European Union, Greece and other southern member states have renewed their national efforts to create year-round holiday destinations, hoping that hiking trails, rock climbing and visits to historic churches can alleviate the winter downfall. in arrivals.

But year-round tourism also reveals gaps in governments’ ability to plan and coordinate, said Panagiotis Karkatsoulis, senior policy analyst at the Athens-based Regulatory Research Institute, which has advised governments in southern Europe and the Middle East on policy reforms.

“There is no point advertising a trail to a historic monastery that closes at 3 p.m. or trying to get elderly people to a destination with bad roads and no hospital access. .tourism exposes all the weaknesses of an administration,” he said.

This winter’s revenue windfall, he argued, will have to fund continued government assistance to struggling businesses and households rather than going towards longer-term improvements.

“Anything that, like tourism, generates wealth, is unquestionably positive,” he said. “But how that money is spent – that’s another conversation.”


AP journalists Theodora Tongas and Lefteris Pitarakis in Athens, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Raquel Redondo in Madrid; Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed.

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