‘We have lost our smiles’

Greek tourism has been hit hard by Europe’s financial crisis, and on the island of Agistri there is anxiety beneath the veneer of a usually warm welcome.

It is a journey made by millions every year – a boat trip to a Greek island in the sun.

Through the azure waters, you travel to a place where the carefree nature of Greek islanders rubs off on you. But these days it isn’t the same.

Not surprisingly, there’s anxiety beneath the veneer of a warm welcome. Nowhere more so perhaps than on the island of Agistri and at the little ferry ticket kiosk in the harbour.

The ruddy face of the man behind the hatch exudes the charm that has helped along countless holiday-makers.

But Yanis Logothetis is no ordinary tour guide. He used to run a travel company and owned two modest hotels, a disco, a restaurant and two small cruise ships. It all crashed just before the Greek financial crisis got really bad.

He found himself over-committed with bank loans and, despite numerous attempts to get back on his feet, he is now waiting for his main 10-room hotel to be repossessed by a court order.

Yanis, 61, smiled as if telling a joke:

“I can’t pretend things are good here. These days I don’t even make a profit out of selling these ferry tickets. And it’s cheaper to buy a return in Piraeus.”

Then he spoke of some friends working on the ferries who hadn’t been paid for five months.

“They wouldn’t want it made public because they’d lose their jobs,” he said.

Reliant on tourism

Agistri – which is Greek for fish hook – is an island reliant on tourism with its stunning scenery and pristine beaches.

It may be early in the tourist season but visitor numbers are down by 15 per cent throughout the country.

Rows of empty deck chairs and sun-loungers line the beaches. In one taverna with a spectacular view there were only two other visitors apart from myself on one evening.

The next day I saw the restaurant owner tending some vegetables in a makeshift plantation beside a road.

Yanis Athanasiou, the island’s mayor, showed me around. He said many people were now working the land to sell what they grow and bring in some cash.

“We have lost our smiles,” he said.

“You see that people are withdrawn and skeptical. We are all waiting anxiously to see what will happen next.”

He was right. The next time I met Yanis Logothetis he did not attempt to be jovial like before but told of how his business collapse had led to the breakdown of his marriage. He said his relationship with his son and daughter, now in their 20s, had also suffered:

“I have nothing to give them anymore. I can’t survive. I don’t have money. I was a different father before and now I can’t help them.”

Bad times

Yanis Logothetis’ brother, Panayotis, is also in the hotel business and is managing to survive. His wife, Elizabeth, lays on free meals for Yanis.

She said there were understandably fewer Greeks taking holidays and foreign tourists were doubtful about visiting:

“Even some of the ones who know us are emailing asking are we going to be safe, will we get cash out of the banks?

“They’re people who come here year-after-year and know this island as a little piece of paradise an hour from Athens yet they’re still worried.”

Later she spoke of her brother-in-law:

“Even though he’s fallen right down near to the bottom he’s hanging onto a branch that’s sticking out. He’s still an optimist and someone is going to throw him a rope.

“But there’s a lot of people who don’t see it that way – you must have heard the suicide rates have gone up in Greece?”

It’s not a thought you’d normally have in an idyllic place like this. But these are exceptionally bad times in a country with no elected government.

It’s fair to say that most people have lost any thread of trust in their politicians.

And now, they can’t even rely on the sunshine and beautiful scenery to bring in the tourists to help their sick economy.

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