I’ve just come back from a week in Greece, so I think I can help: in my very recent experience, a country in financial meltdown feels very much like an out-of-season tourist destination. Where we were, down on the Mani peninsula in the Peloponnese (which is absolutely gorgeous, by the way), there was no-one much about; restaurants and bars were almost completely empty and many hadn’t yet opened for the season; the roads were largely deserted, and the beaches completely so; and when we arrived we were the only customers in our very pleasant little hotel. The picture was similar, although not quite as Marie Celeste-like, at the airport in Athens: no hustle or indeed bustle, the car-rental car parks overflowing with cars for rent and when we came home on Saturday evening literally nobody except us in the very large and comfortable Olympic Airways lounge.
You’ll have spotted the key question arising from all this: was everything as it was because of Greece’s financial problems, or because we were in fact in an out-of-season tourist destination? In fact, I’m pretty sure that the answer is a combination of the two, and, more problematically for the Greeks, that the two are quite closely related. Several people told us a little anxiously that the season was proving to be unusually “late starting” this year, but of course the trouble with that expression is that it assumes the season will in fact be “starting” at some stage more or less as usual if a bit belatedly. I suppose that some people in some parts of the tourist industry, like hoteliers, have reasonably good visibility on the outlook for the season, but a lot of others – those running restaurants, bars and shops, for example – really don’t: they can only wait and hope.
I’m not sure exactly why a country’s financial problems should depress its tourist industry, but I’m pretty sure they do: in fact, I’m pretty sure that any widely-reported problems depress a country’s tourist industry. “Prohlems” is just a bad word to be associated with a place where I’m going on holiday. It may be difficult to see exactly how these “problems” threaten me and my precious week or fortnight, but why take the chance: there are plenty of places not associated with problems at all, and I think I’ll go to one of those.
Of course there are a few people who are resolutely contrarian on this, and insist that the best deals are to be had in the places with the worst and highest-profile problems. Friends of mine are always on the lookout for the kinds of problems most certain to terrify tourists: hardly has the blood been mopped away from the airport massacre than they’re on the first flight to land there, confident in their belief that a) security will be meticulous and b) prices less than half what they were the day before. It’s a strategy that has served them well over the years.
But most of us aren’t that brave. The problems don’t have to get very serious before we’re voting with our flip-flopped feet. Which is why I fear those slightly anxious-looking Greeks are getting to get a whole lot more anxious-looking before the long hot summer is out.