Greece: Dancing till the sun shines

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Everyone wants euros. They accept credit cards in most places, but cash is king. The banks are closed. Greek people can withdraw a maximum of 60 euros per day from an ATM. Some ATMs run dry, many are out of 10-euro notes with the effect that people can withdraw only 50 euros.

This is not a problem for tourists. With a foreign card, we can withdraw as much as we like. Only once did I experience an empty ATM, but the machine around the corner obliged.

On the five Greek islands I visited in July, the locals were uniformly smiling and welcoming, but concerned and eager to talk about Greece’s economic woes. To a man and woman – whether they had voted yes or no in the referendum on the bail-out – they said “We don’t know what will happen”. The bail-out deal is signed and the banks are open, albeit with severe restrictions on money transfer and withdrawals, but people are still saying the same thing. There is no confidence that Greece will cope with the new austerity and debt-payment regime, but it’s universally agreed that keeping the tourists coming is vital.

Our young female hotelier on Santorini, with an economics degree from Athens university, is aghast at the bail-out. She was an Oxi, or no, voter and wants to dump the euro and return to the drachma. Rich European nations, especially the hard-bargaining Germans, are to blame for Greece’s plight, she says. (A recent story in a British newspaper about anti-German sentiment in Greece was headed ‘Don’t tell the cook we’re German’.

The hotelier’s views are the direct opposite of the academic archaeologist who led a tour of Delphi on the Greek mainland a few days earlier. He believed leaving the Eurozone would be folly. “So long as the tourists come, we will work our way out of this,” he said.

“We are not complaining,” says the rental car man who furnishes a small Hyundai to drive around the island of Paros. That night in Naoussa (the best coastal town to stay in on Paros, by the way) a festival of dancers from around Greece welcomes the summer. Introducing the performers, a woman describes the current crisis as “Greece’s darkest hour in 40 years” – a reference to the Colonels’ Coup of 1967-74 – but it doesn’t stop the Greeks dancing to welcome the sun.

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There are no figures yet to suggest tourist numbers are down this summer but some popular places seem to me to be pleasantly uncrowded. Not the hotspots like Santorini and Mykonos, however. When cruise ships are in port, it’s difficult to move in the village of Oia on Santorini. This is where the iconic photographs of Greek islands are taken, showing sugar-cube houses interspersed with blue-domed churches.

Extra direct flights from Britain have kept up the numbers on Mykonos, famous for its gay scene. Amongst the hundreds of tourists of all ages and nationalities at the ferry port, a young fellow’s T-shirt taunts “I’ve gone to Mykonos, Bitch”.

It’s fun and games as usual on all the main Greek islands. The people, the food, the wine, the sunshine and beaches: the economic crisis doesn’t change them. Any strikes, protests or riots have been confined to a small area of Athens. It seems every Greek understands that frightening or inconveniencing tourists would be a bad move. Tourism is everything. Go now, they need you.

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Published NZ Herald August 11 2015 as Reviving Greek Ruins