Greece Needs Tourists to Bail It Out Now More Than Ever

The industry faces both boons and headwinds as the summer begins

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In this summer of discontent for Greece, tourism is needed more than ever to be the economy's lifeboat.

The industry contributes 17 percent to an ever-contracting economy. Hoteliers, taverna owners and sailboat skippers are heading into peak tourist season, praying for both another record year and that Athens succeeds in getting a financial lifeline to stay in the euro zone.

All things going well, this is how the next three months could unfold, according to government projections, with visitors topping out at more than 3 million.

Tourism receipts are also expected to reach the highest level since at least 2000.

Here's what will determine whether those forecasts come to pass:

1. The super cheap euro

For Americans looking for pristine beaches and clear-blue skies, Greece is a bargain. The weakening of the European single currency means that your glass of ouzo and white-washed villa overlooking the Aegean are 17 percent cheaper than they were this time last year. Greece staying in the bloc will be key to making this benefit last. 

2.  Belt-tightening

The prolonged European crisis has prompted people to travel on the cheap. Average spending in the past decade has dropped 32 percent to 604 euros from 882 euros.

3. A new wave of island hoppers

Germans still outnumber other international tourists, but growth is coming from elsewhere. Russians provided the biggest boost to visitor numbers between 2006 and 2013, however their own economic woes might damp their travel bug.  Looking further east, there is the promise of more Asian visitors.

"For the Chinese, it's quite fashionable to be on the Greek islands, marriage is a big thing on Santorini, all year round," Simos Anastasopoulos, president of the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview.

4. The refugee crisis

Throngs of asylum-seekers from war-torn Syria and Iraq may put a dent in tourism as their numbers threaten to topple those of well-heeled vacationers in search of sea, sand and sun. In the year to date, that scenario has already materialized in Lesbos, once home to the poet Sappho. The third-biggest island in Greece has as many as 2,500 refugees waiting to be registered with about 300 arriving each day, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

The holiday business in Greece has proved to be resilient over the years, though an external shock like a massive influx of undocumented immigrants will take a toll, Anastasopoulos said.

"The system cannot support it," he said.

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