06 September 2013

In the Greece that few tourists ever
wander in, I still need to pay in cash

A worn and battered sculpture on Tsagri Street in Rethymnon speaks of the present sufferings of Greek people (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

There are two images on parallel streets off Tsouderon Street in Rethymnon that speak to me of the present crisis in Greece, which goes far beyond a matter of budgeting and the economy.

At one end of Tsagri Street, a worn and beaten sculpture appears to portray the suffering Greek people today. The figures in it are bowed and beaten, yet appear to be helping each other to shake off the chains of oppression. Some days ago, a passer-by seems to have a placed a sprig of laurel on it, as if to say the Greek people can yet be victorious.

The former Commercial Bank of Greece branch is abandoned and the oranges and lemons are rotting on the trees in the garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In Kastrinogianni Street, a narrow side street leading to Mitropolis (Cathedral) Square, there is a small, overgrown, abandoned graveyard. Beside it, the former premises of the Commercial Bank of Greece (Εμπορική Τράπεζα) are locked and empty, the windows are broken, the garden is overgrown and the orange and lemon trees in a once elegant garden are rotting on the trees, with no-one to pick the fruit. It is says so much of how Greek commerce and banking have turned sour.

Yet, in what seems to be a statement of economic patriotism, a large proportion of the tourists in Rethymnon this month are Greeks who are on stay-at-home holidays or “stay-cations.”

Despite economic and financial problems that continue to have a severe impact on every walk of life, the Bank of Greece says revenue from tourism rose by 18% in the first half of this year, to €3.3 billion. Part of this is due to the resilience of the Greek tourist sector, which remains tenacious in its efforts to attract visitors and works hard to develop the whole package on offer to potential holiday-makers.

Across the board, Greek hotels have cut their prices by about 10%. Restaurants and tavernas in Rethymnon are offering better value, with special deals for two. The concept of an “early bird menu” is a difficult one for Greeks, who have always enjoyed dining late in the evening. But restaurants are working hard – so hard that even at 11 at night or later I see young couples, who have worked hard all day and all evening, collecting toddlers from grandparents to bring them home at the end of a long, hard-working day.

Red, open-top buses are a new effort this year to improve the tourist attractions in Rethymnon and in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But there is more to it than working harder and longer hours. New ideas are also being pushed with vigour. Rethymnon is a small city, but now there is a red open-top bus circuit around the town, and visiting some of the local villages, leading from the seafront every hour on the hour. In Iraklion, the island capital, there are two competing operators, running city tours on red open-top buses and on sleek new yellow buses.

In the hills above Rethymnon, a small convent with a new lease of life thanks to the innovative and creative attitudes of the nuns of Agia Irini, is co-operating with tour operators, opened the doors to tourists not in a money-making exercise but because Russian tourists have expressed a particular interest in visiting this working nunnery and a special devotion to the convent patron, Saint Irene.

New franchises are offering everything imaginable made from or with olives (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

New franchises have opened across Rethymnon, selling every imaginable product made from olive oil and olive wood, from soap to kitchen utensils, and a range of ancillary goods, including kitchen towels and mugs. The branding is clever, but it also provides continuing employment in farms and villages throughout Crete, and boosts the image of one of the mainstays of the Greek agricultural sector.

Whether franchises like this are sustainable is another question, but many people are willing to invest their money and their time in the hope of developing something worthwhile. Certainly, they feel there is no point in leaving their money in the bank and projects like this might give some hope to their families.

Archaeological and museum staff state their case outside the Loggia in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The public sector cuts have hit tourist services and public transport too, so that there is no longer a ferry service between Rethymnon and Pireaus. But, despite widespread strikes and protests against austerity measures that have closed tourist attractions such as museums and archaeological sites, the Greek tourism sector is working hard not just to keep its head above water, but to develop and prosper.

Greece has received €240 billion in international bailout since 2010, but the Greek tourism sector represents up to 15% of this country’s €190 billion economy – in other words, tourism in one year is almost as important as all the bailouts over the past three years.

In the first half of this year alone, revenue from tourism rose by 18% to €3.3 billion, according to figures from the Bank of Greece, and the forecasts expect the number of visitors to Greece this year to reach 17 million, up 1.5 million from 15.5 million in 2012.

It is no wonder that the Finance Minister, Yannis Stournaras, could tell Parliament in Athens last week that Greece is on target to raise its GDP this year, mainly thanks to tourism.

Meanwhile, for tourists in Crete, there are few signs of economic doom and gloom, and where there are signs of action among the public sector workers, many tourists fail to notice them or cannot read the signs in Greek. And most visitors cannot read the aggressive racist graffiti from the extreme-right Golden Dawn targeting foreigners.

Any short-term fears tourists may have about currency and financial stability are allayed when they find the ATM machines are working and plastic can be used in virtually every shop and outlet.

The ATM machine is working well at National Bank of Greece next door in Tsouderon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But I’m still paying in cash for everything. I’m using the ATM in the branch of the National Bank of Greece next door in Tsouderon Street, and am paying with cash in shops, restaurants, periptera and for tours and buses.

Tax evasion among the rich and the elite was so endemic in Greece over the generations that it was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to the collapse of the Greek economy.

However, as I insist on paying with cash rather than with plastic, even for large transactions, I am not encouraging tax avoidance or tax evasion. Many businesses in this present climate find plastic payments are immediately swallowed up by the banks to pay off overdrafts, business loans and mortgages. On the other hand, cash payments leave businesses with the choice of paying suppliers and workers immediately, when suppliers are demanding cash and many workers in the tourist sector are seasonal and vulnerable.

Predictions say 40,000 small businesses in Greece face closure this year. They need all the support they can get. The local seasonal workers and farmers cannot wait. The banks can wait. The hedge funds can wait. The German banks can wait.

Derek Scally reported in The Irish Times last week how one German bank has received German government guarantees of €124 billion and has counted up losses of €9.3 billion. One German bank costs more than half the total €240 billion that Greece has received in aid to date. But no-one in Germany is hollering about the German banks in the same tones they use when talking about Greece.

A voluntary clinic on Kastrinogianni Street, where queues form at the end of the working day and no questions are asked (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Meanwhile, as Greece remains in financial trouble and is expecting to receive more international assistance, the tourists in Crete are unlikely to stroll further along Kastrinogianni Street, where – at the opposite end to the abandoned premises of the Commercial Bank of Greece – local people who have lost everything, including their dignity, queue each evening outside .a crèche which doubles after the working day as a voluntary clinic.

At the end of the day, doctors, nurses and hospital workers offer a free clinic. They say this is not charity, because everyone is entitled to proper health care as a human right. They ask no questions, and they undertake to intervene with hospitals if further care is needed.

Last week, the newly-appointed Health Minister, Adonis Georgiadis, made his views clear on Mega TV when he told protesting health workers: “We should have fired you so you can understand what is really happening.”

He has since conceded that his outburst was “excessive.” But he seems not to realise that health sector workers may be the only people who truly see and hear what is really happening in Greece today.

Can you buy everything at Nama? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

There is a shop called Nama in Metropolis Square, at the end of Kastrinogianni Street, and another one in Paleologou Street, both a few steps from where I am staying on Tsouderon Street.

Both shops seem to sell everything, including beads, which I imagine were once a form of currency in some places, and hats, once used to pass around for a collection. But I am sure my humorous take on the name of this shop, so close to these symbols of despair and desperation in Greece, is lost even on Irish tourists, for few tourists in Rethymnon ever walk through this part of the town.

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