Half a century after leaving Greece and more than 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) from Athens, Paul Afkos says there’s no escaping the calling of his motherland.
With Greek unemployment four times higher than in his adopted Australia, the 59-year-old head of Afkos Industries, a maker of mining components based near Perth, has plowed A$18 million ($17.9 million) into a 109-bed hotel in northern Greece that opened in April.
“I see it as a duty,” Afkos says, after bringing forward by eight months the opening of the Afkos Grammos Hotel Resort in Kastoria. “I can’t be seen as a hypocrite, not helping my fellow Greeks. I wanted to open early to provide some assistance to these people who are in need of a job.”
Australia’s Greek population has grown from seven pirates dispatched by Britain in 1829 to a diaspora of about half a million, making Melbourne the third-largest Greek city behind Athens and Thessaloniki. Armed with patriotism and the best-performing currency against the euro since late-2008, Australia’s Greeks are deploying wealth amassed in the fastest growing major developed economy to a nation that’s needed 240 billion euros ($300 billion) in bailouts. Greece votes June 17 in an election set to decide its future in the euro zone.
John Tripidakis, a Greek lawyer with an Athens practice who splits his time between Sydney and Melbourne, said half his clients are interested in buying property in Greece, up from less than 10 percent two years ago.
“They are looking for a bargain,” he said in an interview from Sydney. “Yet they are still connected to the sentimental criteria of buying something near the village of their father or grandfather.”
Beachfront summerhouses or suburban bargains in Athens are among the most-desired properties, said Tripidakis, a lawyer for 30 years who was born in the Greek capital.
Apartment prices in Greece fell 3.7 percent in 2009, 4.7 percent the following year and 5.1 percent in 2011, and house values have declined even further, the central bank said in April. The real-estate market is “without any signs of recovery,” the bank said.
“What better time than the present to buy?” Tripidakis said. “Cash is king.”
The Australian dollar has surged 66 percent against the euro since October 2008 as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s failure drove up credit costs, slowed global growth, and exposed the stretched finances of European nations such as Ireland and Greece. Spain last week asked euro-region governments for as much as 100 billion euros to rescue the country’s banking system.
“Anecdotally, pretty much every person from my parents’ generation or their children are going over there and purchasing property in the town or area where they grew up,” said George Boubouras, 44, the Melbourne-based head of investment strategy at UBS AG’s wealth management unit in Australia and a Greek citizen.
“They are very strong and passionate about it, and it’s very much not with the brain, it’s with the heart,” said Boubouras, who was born in South Australia and inherited property in Greece, where his cousins and extended family live. Many properties change hands only for cash, he said.
Greece has at least a one-in-three chance of leaving the 17-country euro area within months of this weekend’s election, Standard & Poor’s said in a June 4 report. Greek deposit outflows have accelerated before the vote, two bankers familiar with the situation said, on concern the nation may move closer to abandoning the region’s currency.
The crisis dominates conversation in the Greek-owned shops, cafés and accountancy firms in Melbourne’s eastern suburb of Oakleigh, the heartland of the city’s Greek community.
“The majority of people I speak to have family back home,” 36-year-old butcher Tom Droutsis said in his father’s shop, where posters of the historical Greek town of Nafpaktos, his mother’s birthplace, hang on the walls. “I feel for them.”
At least once a week, a visitor from Greece comes to the shop or he fields an inquiry about work or other opportunities in Melbourne from someone caught up in the crisis, he said.
Australia’s 2006 census counted 365,145 people of Greek ancestry in Australia and 109,980 Greek-born migrants among Australia’s population of 19.9 million at the time. Greece was home to 10.8 million at the end of 2011.
In Australia, the seven young sailors from Hydra transported when the colony was still accepting convicts from Britain were followed by exiles from Ottoman rule, then other Greeks seeking riches during Australia’s Gold Rush. Emigration increased in the 20th century amid conflict with Turkey, depression and civil war.
According to a New South Wales state government website, between 1947 and 1982, almost 250,000 arrived in Australia from mainland Greece, its islands and Greek communities outside the nation that gave the world Plato and the Olympic Games.
“For Greeks living abroad, Greece is not a country, it’s a cultural ideology,” said Anastasios Tamis, author of “The Greeks in Australia,” published in 2005. “It’s what she has offered the world from the classical perspective. This has perpetuated love and patriotism.”
Almost half of Australia’s Greek community lives in the nation’s second-biggest city of Melbourne, and about 30 percent in Sydney, according to the NSW government site. More than a quarter of Australia’s Greek community returns to Greece for the northern hemisphere’s summer, Tamis said.
Still, some question the merit of investing in Greek property when the country’s immediate future is undecided.
“Greek Australians may be looking, but how many are actually proceeding?” Yannis Perrotis, managing director of CBRE Atria, a unit of real estate company CBRE Group Inc., said in an interview in Athens. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows what is going to happen to this country.”
Con Berbatis, a Perth-based pharmacist and a partner at the Holiday Inn Hotel in the city, said he sees opportunities in Greece but isn’t buying assets yet. Instead, he has met Greek consular officials in Australia to discuss how to donate as much as A$50,000 of medical supplies as the crisis cripples Greece’s healthcare system.
“A number of things need to stabilize before I put my money in there,” said Berbatis, born in Australia in 1946, 20 years after his father left Greece. “The prerequisites for me are a stable currency and a stable political structure.”
Stephen Koukoulas, managing director of Canberra-based Market Economics Pty, said a Greek exit from the euro would see investors “badly burnt” by currency depreciation as the nation returned to the drachma.
“Investments should be related to risk-reward trade-offs, and if they’re done for reasons of the heart, not of the head, you can get buried if things move against you,” said Koukoulas, a third-generation Greek Australian whose grandfather arrived in Sydney in 1920.
Afkos said he’s “optimistic” that Greece, which has a jobless rate of 22 percent, won’t exit the euro. The former co-owner of the Perth Glory soccer team said the resort he built in Kastoria has given work to 25 local families.
“That’s the kind of help we Australian Greeks can do,” said Afkos, who followed his father to Australia in 1964 with his sister and mother. “I have a warm feeling for the people.”