Could Chinese Tourists “Save Greece”?

Formerly Ubiquitous German Tourists Dropping In Number

Expect more Chinese tourists to venture to Greece, but it's a stretch to expect them to save the industry

As Greece’s sputtering economy continues to roil markets around the world, hoteliers, tour operators and even independent restaurateurs in the country’s tourism hot-spots are feeling the pressure. Though the country continues to receive an influx of sun-seeking northern European and North American visitors, by all accounts numbers are down, with the industry hit hard by a dropoff in the number of once-ubiquitous German tourists. According to the Guardian, ferries have carried 15 percent fewer passengers this year and 25 percent fewer vehicles than the same period in 2011, with the Athenian newspaper Kathimerini warning that the country may end up selling off ships if traffic doesn’t significantly improve by next month. This is, naturally, cause for serious concern, as tourism — unlike manual industries like agriculture — had previously been seen as a source of sustainable growth in an otherwise troubled Greek economy.

For many European tourists, one factor keeping them away is rising prices on what used to be considered a “cheap” getaway. Via the Guardian:

Nobody we met wanted to return to the drachma. “It would set us back 60 years,” said the shopkeeper who talked about the Germans. But a consequence of sticking with the euro, for the tourist as well as the hirer of chief engineers, is that Greece is expensive. Two Greek salads, two lamb kebabs and two stuffed tomatoes with chips, two glasses of wine and two beers, and what are we looking at? At least €60 in even an ordinary place. The “cheap holiday” that Greece used to promise northern Europe has gone the same way as cheap Greek seamen or cheap Greek olive pickers; in Kefalonia, to keep down the cost of agricultural labour, they sometimes come from Pakistan.

With prices rising, one hopeful spot for Greece’s tourism industry is coming in the form of the emerging Indian and Chinese outbound tourist — many of whom are just now taking their first vacations abroad. Notoriously free-spending and increasingly adventurous, China’s international traveler is of particular interest to Greek resorts and hoteliers.  According to figures released last week by China’s Ministry of Public Security, 38.6 million mainland Chinese citizens ventured outside the country’s borders in the first half of this year, a nearly 20 percent rise over the same period last year, putting the country’s tourists on track to take around 80 million overseas trips over the course of 2012. At the moment, per capita spending by outbound Chinese travelers remains among the highest in the world, with each spending around US$1,000 per trip (over less than $900 per trip in 2009) and amounting to nearly $100 billion annually.

Athens attracts older Chinese tourists, while independent younger travelers are exploring more remote areas

So will this tourism boom benefit Greece? Or will Chinese tourists mostly stick to the usual “shopping circuit” in places like Paris or New York? As of 2010, only around 10,000 Chinese tourists visited Greece — compared to France’s 550,000 — but as a result of an extended marketing push, the country’s reputation among China’s more adventurous travelers has risen gradually over the years. Currently, the Greek National Tourism Organization operates two tourism offices in China, one in Shanghai and one in Beijing, and we can only expect the GNTO to intensify its outreach efforts as Greece looks to fill in the gaps from fewer German or Italian tourists with those from China or India.

But the problem with depending too much on Chinese tourists to pick up the slack for other regular visitor nationalities is that they simply haven’t flocked to destinations like Greece in significant enough numbers or spent enough there to warrant over-the-top optimism. Traditionally, Chinese tourists in Greece have packed onto tour buses, seen the country’s ancient sites, taken photos, and headed home. Compare that to places like Paris, where growing numbers of independent (as compared to group) travelers have spent heavily on five-star accommodations, luxury shopping, and even châteaux in Bordeaux.

Even if the number of Chinese tourists visiting Greece rises significantly, their lower per capita, per-trip spend there (duty-free shops aside) means the country’s tourism industry will struggle to make up for the higher spending previously seen among German or British guests. While a certain percentage of individual Chinese visitors in Greece will splash out on luxury digs, with some even buying vacation homes, and numbers will undoubtedly continue to grow, it’s far too early to expect an influx of Chinese outbound tourists to rush in, spend lavishly, and “save” the industry at this point.


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