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Tourists return as austerity-hit Greece emerges from crisis

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Crete

media captionPain continues beneath the surface of paradise Crete, as Mark Lowen reports

The golden sand, the flashes of bougainvillea and the clear sea as warm as the welcome - few places say "summer" better than Greece.

And at the Kahlua beach bar on the eastern shores of Crete, the holiday season is in full swing. The chill-out music is playing, the sunbeds are full and Kahlua is now attached to a new hotel - all 40 rooms have been booked for the entire summer.

It's a pattern seen across Greece. Tourists are set to be up by 20% on last year and have almost doubled since 2010 when the financial crisis hit. Back then, worries about social unrest here and "Grexit" - Greece's possible departure from the eurozone - kept the holidaymakers away. But it's returning confidence that Greece may finally have turned a corner that has brought them back.

"We make a new start", says Manos Arvanitakis, Kahlua's owner, sipping a fresh pineapple juice. "Things here are more stable as regards politics, the euro and everything. People from other countries feel more relaxed about coming to Greece: now they don't have a reason not to come and there are plenty of reasons to come."

image captionManos Arvanitakis says there are many reasons to visit Greece again
image captionGreece's economy is set to grow after six years of recession in a row

Tourism is Greece's biggest industry, making up a fifth of GDP. As it slumped, so did the economy. I remember reporting from empty hotels and quiet beaches on the Ionian island of Zakynthos in 2012 at the height of the crisis. Now Greece is expecting its best year yet, with 19 million arrivals. And it's set to help the economy finally grow after six consecutive years of recession.

On a packed beach near the Cretan capital, Heraklion, I meet Thomas, a young tourist from Germany. "When we speak to our friends back home, they tell us: 'Ah! You're going to Greece, what about the crisis?' And we say: 'Don't worry. We feel good here. Greece is a beautiful country'."

A few sunbeds away, Harold Bradel is relaxing with his family. "We're very impressed with what's happening in Crete," he says. "There are lots of new roads and new buildings here."

Does he get the sense of a Greek recovery, I ask?

"Yes, definitely," he replies.

In some ways, he's right. In the space of four years, Greece has wiped out its deficit, apart from interest payments on its 240bn euro (£191bn) bailout from the IMF and eurozone.

It's the biggest economic adjustment of any country since World War Two, but it has come at a huge cost, with biting austerity measures to slash public spending.

Taxes have soared, and salaries and pensions were cut by on average 40%. When you're among the one in four without a job here, a so-called "primary budget surplus" doesn't mean much.

And for Nikos Britzolakis, there is simply no sign of recovery. I meet him at a hospital in Heraklion, where he's visited his wife Eleni since 13 March.

On that day, unable to cope with debt and new austerity measures, she threw herself from an 18m-high (60ft) wall in the city.

image captionFor Nikos Britzolakis's wife, Eleni, the cost of economic recovery was too much to bear

Suicides are up in Greece by 45% since the financial crisis hit, according to the charity Klimaka.

Eleni's attempt was unsuccessful but it's left her paralysed and barely able to communicate. She lies in bed, connected to an oxygen mask and drips, crying in pain when they are moved. The only decoration is a postcard of a religious icon that she keeps on her bed. It is little solace.

Nikos takes me to the spot where she jumped on that fateful day. Two suicide notes - one for her husband, the other for her daughter - talked of how she could no longer cope with the 600 euros (£480; $815) that her family had to live on each month.

"I lost everything I had in five minutes when she jumped: my home, my wife, my dreams," says Nikos, fighting back the tears.

"I feel like I want to end my life as well. What stops me is my daughter - and in the night I have to check on her to see she hasn't done the same. This life isn't worth living any more."

image captionGreek tourism is increasing as the economic recovery continues
image captionHowever, about 300 people a day depend on food handouts in Heraklion

For others too, the pain of the crisis remains acute. Three hundred people a day depend on the food handout in Heraklion. Most are the so-called "new poor" who used to have a decent wage and a stable job. And this is Crete, traditionally one of the richer parts of the country, thanks to its tourism. On the mainland, it's far worse.

"Greece's macroeconomic figures are good - but this is not felt by people down the street," says Alexis Kalokairinos, a professor at the University of Crete and head of the soup kitchen foundation. "We are told we're getting out of the crisis but we feel we aren't. Most Greeks think that the medicine - the strategy towards Greece - has not been correct."

As the sun sets over Crete, the evening charter planes fly in every few minutes from across Europe: Moscow, Berlin, London. Heraklion airport is heaving and the holidaymakers are overwhelmed by the beauty of this island.

In many ways, the jewel of the Mediterranean is shining once again. But there is a darker side to this story and for so many Greeks, the prospect of "recovery" is still a distant point on the horizon.

Related Topics

  • Greece