Tourists to Athens are warned of ongoing unrest after Greece’s parliament voted to accept the austerity measures, without which the beleagured Mediterranean nation will not get a helping hand out of its debt crisis.
The centre of Athens, Syntagma (Constitution) Square opposite parliament has been the focus of both peaceful and violent protests over the past two weeks – just as tourist season gets into full swing.
International media relations and crisis consultant Stratos Safioleas, who was in the thick of the protests on Wednesday as the parliament voted, warns visitors to steer clear of the centre of the city during demonstrations. The Ministry of Finance was set on fire and police, who had retreated along with some of the protesters, moved in again as firefighters arrived. The blaze was quickly brought under control. But elsewhere, everything seems to be OK, Safioleas says.
“If you are in the centre, you risk being affected by tear gas or being hit by stones, but if you are 5km away, you wouldn’t notice anything is going on,” Safioleas told Taste for Travel by phone from Athens. “Despite the fact it looks bad, this is not an average day in Greece. These events happen over a few hours, not all through the day.”
Another friend reports having to put paper towels over her face and nose, due to the acrid tear gas as she left work, but two streets away, she says, “It’s like a different world”. Hundreds are reported to have retreated to the Metro subway system to escape the gear gas. Syntagma Square has sustained damage to buildings and kiosks, and luxury hotels in the vicinity certainly face reservation cancellations.
I’ve had a lot of blog traffic over the past few days particularly, with people asking if it’s safe to travel to Greece. It’s sensible to avoid trouble spots, and monitor news reports. The islands are unaffected by unrest but strikes may affect opening hours to archaeological sites and may also affect transport – ferries and planes. Air traffic controllers and airlines declined to strike two weeks ago, due to arriving travellers, but did join the general strike of Monday and Tuesday.
Greece’s parliament voted 155 for, and 138 against the latest austerity meaures, after which about 1000 youths pursued security forces who responded with tear gas. Police said 11 arrests had been made with 31 officers injured. During the 48-hour general strike in Greece on June 28-29, there was also a blockade in Pireaus stopping tourists from boarding ferries, which will do nothing for Greece’s tourism industry, which is the world’s 21st biggest by value, generating $US12.7 billion of revenue last year and employing 298,000 people out of a total population of about 11 million. The industry had a lacklustre season in 2010 thanks to riots in Athens in April of that year.
Greece is not the only country with strikes affecting travellers. The BBC reports travellers have been warned to expect delays on arrival at UK ports and airports on Thursday, June 30, as hundreds of immigration and customs officers are due to join the public sector strike.
My youngest daughter is set to fly to Athens in a few days and motherly concern about the ongoing unrest is causing some nail-biting. She’s still going, although won’t be staying anywhere near the centre. Safioleas said the unrest was not over yet in Greece.
“It depends if Europe provides a viable plan (for Greece’s debt crisis). Things will be less intense from now on but there will be more strikes. I’m flying out of Athens on Friday and I don’t expect any delays. On the islands everything is OK and people are holidaying as normal.”
Most Greeks are not involved in the unrest and are believed to be resigned to the austerity measures and want real economic change for their country. They are deeply saddened by the destruction in the Athens centre.
As I’ve said in an earlier post, tourists are coming to Greece because the Arab Spring is driving tourists to the other side of the Med. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports a bumper season for Greek islands so far. The hydrofoils and ferries across the Saronic Gulf to the island are packed, writes Helena Smith.
“Hydra is as popular as it has ever been,” mayor Angelos Kotronis told her. “Our hotels are full, our shops are full, the boats are full. We’re not complaining.”
However I’m sure there are tourists with legitimate complaints of having their holidays wrecked by the violence in Syntagma Square and delays in getting to and from islands. Greece cannot afford to drive them away.