Greece is expecting its tourism economy to exceed 20 million, a sign that the country is winning back foreigners and getting its economy back on its feet.
After a poor season in 2012 -- a year marked by back-to-back elections, political instability, and anti-austerity protests -- the tourism industry seems finally to be getting its swagger back.
AdvertisementLast year saw a record 20 million foreign tourists visiting the country, as fears of a Greek exit from the euro receded.
The new forecast from officials is that this will be another record year, a welcome piece of good news in a country in a country looking to exit a six-year economic slump and where tourism is a big employer.
Greeks desperately need the cash injections brought by tourists looking for sunshine and to spend their holidays visiting ancient monuments.
Their living standards have plunged, many cannot pay their taxes, the unemployment rate exceeds 26 percent, and more than half of all young people cannot find work.
So a bumper year for tourists would be welcome.
"2013 was a record year. In 2014, every indication shows that we are going to break this record," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told a tourism conference last month.
"Get ready for over 20 million visitors," he said.
A move to reduce tax on food services by 10 percentage points is thought to have helped, while the culture ministry said last week that longer operating hours introduced on a trial basis at 33 museums and sites were already paying off.
"The data shows a major revenue increase," said culture minister Panos Panagiotopoulos.
The number of visitors to two of Greece's most popular island sites -- the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini, and the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion on Crete -- more than doubled in April, compared to the level a year earlier, the ministry said.
Visitors to ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, the Bronze Age stronghold of Mycenae and the Minoan palace of Knossos also increased by over 40 percent, the ministry said.
Last week, the association of Greek tourism enterprises (SETE), a leading industry group, increased its visitor estimate for the year from 18.5 million to 19 million tourists, based on a rise in flight bookings.
That figure does not include another 2.2 million estimated arrivals from cruise ship packages, which are calculated separately.
All of Greece's main airports are expected to handle increased traffic this year, with the islands of Mykonos, Skiathos, Cephalonia and Samos gaining prominently.
But the biggest flight increase -- 122 percent -- is expected at the airport of Kalamata in the Peloponnese, which was recently added to the destinations of budget airline Ryanair.
Overall, on average, airline bookings are up 25 percent this year with the biggest increases from Britain, Russia, Germany and Italy.
"There are an additional four million flight bookings this year," Andreas Andreadis, the head of SETE, said.
"Greece (previously) found itself at the centre of negative publicity. With the return of political stability... negative publicity became positive," he told AFP.
"This usually happens. Like a spring, when the pressure is released, it swiftly bounces back."
- Return of good times? -
At the worst point of the nation's debt crisis, which came after the International Monetary Fund and European Union provided rescue funding tied to radical reforms in 2010, pictures of rioting and fires in Athens frightened many tourists away.
Repeated strikes and animosity towards Germany for its role in the debt negotiations did not help.
Alongside shipping, tourism is the main contributor to Greece's debt-wracked economy, so a drop-off in tourists was of major concern.
The sector accounts for about 15 percent of the economy's output, and 20 million tourists amounts to nearly double the population.
With things looking up last year, the sector contributed 34 billion euros to national output, Andreadis said.
And as the culture ministry points out, that money also brings employment.
"Every additional 1.0 million arrivals means 50,000 jobs," the culture minister said.
With new business activity still strongly orientated towards cafes and restaurants, the sector and related services are still very much pulling the economy.
But some economists say the country may return to over-dependence on its traditional sectors.
Greece also still lags behind regional rivals in terms of average spending per tourist.
Average daily spending is 146 euros ($199) compared to 162 euros in Turkey and 200 in Italy, according to the government.
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