Determined to keep their cheer in the gloom of the economic downturn, Greeks are holding on to the nation's unofficial shrink couch -- the coffee shop -- for a few hours of escape from their bills.
At a time when hundreds of small businesses around the country teeter in a market plagued by falling consumer demand and a loan drought, cafeterias are doing a brisk trade with millions refusing to forego their daily coffee fix.
Advertisement"Crisis or not, Greeks will have their coffee," said Phaedon Vaimakis, 29, a junior financial analyst enjoying his cup on a warm Athens spring afternoon.
Though not a coffee producer, the country swears by the bean -- Greeks go through an estimated 5.8 billion cups a year whether on a date, a business appointment or just to get out of bed in the morning.
And with the economic crisis making landfall with an early slump in tourist bookings that are vital to the Greek economy, the sight of bustling cafes where patrons queue for seats starkly contrasts with boarded up businesses next door.
"At a time of crisis, people seek goods and services that add value to their crammed daily routine," said Eleni Drosou, marketing and business development manager for prominent coffee chain Flocafe.
"To Greeks, coffee is a daily outing and a chance to enjoy themselves with friends," she told AFP in an email.
"Coffee will be the last thing to die in Greece," declared a cafe manager in the Athens district of Kolonaki, home to the capital's priciest boutiques and cafeterias charging around five euros (6.60 dollars) a cup.
The high charges do little to dent demand. Even at prices up to nine euros -- the equivalent of a main course -- seating at the most exclusive spots in the centre and coastal suburbs can be hard to find particularly in the midday-to-afternoon coffee rush hour.
"It's the cheapest form of entertainment," said Thanassis, a 40-year-old computer technician who describes himself as an avid coffee drinker.
"Every week I look forward to Saturday and Sunday when I can relax at a cafeteria with a coffee and newspaper," he noted.
Instead of paying around eight euros for a movie or over 30 euros for a meal, many Greeks spend the same amount of time chatting over a coffee -- to the silent outrage of operators who would prefer swifter client rotation.
"The other day I had two ladies here for seven hours over two coffees," fumed Natassa Vettou, a cafeteria owner in the busy Ermou St shopping district.
But while cafe business remains brisk, other sectors are not as fortunate.
The Athens chamber of commerce and industry (EVEA) this month said 38,000 companies are "a step away" from bankruptcy while around 200,000 are considering staff cuts.
A 28-billion-euro (37-billion-dollar) state package to encourage bank loans has failed to jumpstart the market, minimal growth is expected next year and the jobless rate in January hit 9.4 percent, the highest since March 2007. Greece's resilient parallel economy, estimated by the World Bank at around 28 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), is helping cushion the blow according to analysts.
Around 35 percent of Greeks are non-salaried and many hold down a second job kept clear of the taxman, notes Michalis Massourakis, senior manager for economic research at Greece's second largest lender Alpha Bank.
Other analysts point to the high rate of home ownership in Greece as a further mitigating factor that helps families stay afloat.
But in the absence of heavy industry, Greece's response to the crisis will likely be decided abroad -- by foreign visitor proceeds that generate some 18 percent of Greece's gross domestic product.
A leading association of Greek tourism operators this month said the early booking season indicated a 20-percent drop in arrivals compared to last year.
But last week, the national statistics service (Esye) said Greek museums had 18.7 percent fewer visitors in 2008 compared to 2007 while the country's famous archaeological sites saw a 14.4-percent fall in attendance.
Unless the trend is checked, the association of Greek tourism enterprises (SETE) estimates the downturn could cost Greece's tourism industry at least five billion euros (6.6 billion dollars) in lost income and thousands of jobs.
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