10 September 2019
Two questions I am
asked after every
holiday in Greece
When I return from Greece, I am inevitably asked questions that have become very familiar.
Like every returning holidaymaker, there are common questions such as did you have a good time, was the weather better than it was here, or was the food/wine/hotel good.
At one time, returning from Greece, people inevitably asked did I go island hopping.
But in recent years there are two questions I am always asked when I come back from Greece:
Are they still suffering from the impact of the economic crisis?
Did you see many refugees on the islands?
The two islands that I have visited recently – Crete three times in the past 18 months, and Corfu for a fortnight more recently – are cushioned, to a degree, from both of these crises.
Very few refugees make it as far as Corfu, although it has some large and visible Roma settlements that are in a very sad state. Crete too has very few refugees, although there have been some unusual and encouraging stories in recent years, including one of the integration of a Greek-speaking Syrian family in Crete, whose grandparents were Greek-speaking Muslims who had been forced to leave Greece in the 1920s.
Most refugees seem to arrive first in the Dodecanese islands and the islands close to the Turkish coast, including Chios and Lesbos. But I have seen refugees on the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki, and the memories of one encounter with a beautiful but impoverished refugee on the streets of Athens two years are still heart-breaking.
When it comes to the impacts of the economic crisis, at first these are less visible on islands such as Crete and Corfu.
These are large islands that benefit from tourism. Over the years, the tourist season has been extended, so that now it last for six months from April to October and is no longer concentrated on school holiday months.
Some reports say that about 25 per cent of the Greek economy is dependent on tourism. But it is inevitable that a hard Brexit is going to have an immediate impact on tourism, when prospective British tourists find the pound has lost its spending power and 2020 holidays have become more expensive.
Indeed, if economies throughout northern Europe take a harder hit than expected from a hard Brexit, the impact on the Greek tourist sector could be worse than forecasts are estimating.
But even in the places that benefit from tourism, it does not take too much searching to find poverty, if you walk around with your eyes open.
Nor is it difficult to see how the economic crisis has had an impact even in areas that have been cushioned most because of tourism.
Once lively bars, shops, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs have closed on every island. In some cases, of course, it is simply that fashions have changed, or trends demand new styles.
But in may cases families and businesses found themselves too stretched, unable to pay rising interest rates or ever-increasing taxes, or had expanded when they over-estimated potential growth in the tourist sector.
And so, when of the other questions I am asked is, how can I help?
Obviously, going to Greece on holidays is one immediate answer.
By and large I agree with the campaign that asks people not to holiday in the large, all-in-one resorts. Of course, they provide employment on a large scale. But their profits are usually sent out of Greece to large multinationals, and they take business away from local restaurants, bars, shops and family-run hotels.
Tourism is a form of taxation. It transfers large sums of money from northern Europe to Greece, sustains local economies, creates and keeps jobs, and the tax revenues it generates help the recovery of the Greek economy.
Buy in local shops, eat in local restaurants, drink in local bars, visit the churches, monasteries and museums.
There are ways too of helping Greece to deal with the refugee problem. It is in inequitable that large number of refugees making their way through Turkey to Europe are caught in a ‘limbo’ in Greece, and the Greek economy cannot afford to handle this crisis alone.
Continuing political pressure is the obvious way to change attitudes. There are Irish volunteers like Caoimhe Butterly and Valerie Cox who gave gone to the islands in recent years to work with the refugees, and there are churches and agencies that could use your support, contribution and prayers.
But going to Greece is the best way to help Greece. You will see for yourself, and it will change your approaches to Greece’s problems and how you respond to them in your political, social and cultural attitudes … and, if you pray, how you pray too.