When a nine-year old girl, the daughter of an unemployed hotel chambermaid fainted from hunger at a bakery shop on the island Rhodes this week, shockwaves were felt across the country. Several media outlets broke into scheduled programming to report the incident, while leading government ministers were left glued to their television sets, gripped by harrowing tale. Thanassis Stamoulis, president of the association of hotel employees in Rhodes explains.
The young girl was in line, he says, waiting to get some bread. But she collapsed from starvation. This, unfortunately, is the grim reality here on the island of Rhodes, Stamoulis says. But it is just a small example of the human toll this crisis is exacting on society. With its breathtaking vistas, sandy beaches and spectacular medieval architecture, Rhodes has long been a top vacation destination. Last year alone, the island attracted more than two million British, German and American tourists. But today, weeks into Greece’s tourism relaunch, not a single hotel has managed to open, inflicting huge losses and devastating despair across the local community according to Stamoulis.
The scenes that are unravelling here are like we are emerging from a war, he says. Every day people gather at a main square selling their personal possessions to make some money. Rhodes is dead. Almost all shops are closed. There is just no business at all. Everything is dead.
For a country heavily reliant on tourism, such scenes of despair could spell another recession for Greece, just years after it managed to steer out of an exhausting 10-year financial crisis. In a recent report, the country’s central bank said travel revenue was down by 99 percent in April. And this after, travel to Greece had dropped by more than 50 percent between January and March the previous year. The government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis says it is confident that some losses can be recovered with the re-opening of travel. But even Yiannis Retsos, the head of Greece’s Tourism Confederation, the umbrella agency guiding the country’s top industry is pessimistic.
At this point, he said, I’ll be surprised if tourism revenues exceed four to five billion euros.
That’s just a fraction of the nearly 18 billion euros the country raked in from tourism last year, providing jobs to one in five workers here.
From the start of the pandemic, the government injected more than 10 billion euros into the economy to keep businesses operating, mainly in the tourism trade. But that appears to be too little. Finance Minister Christos Staikouras recently announced that the government expected the country to suffer a contraction of 8% of gross domestic product in 2020 with a whopping 16% downturn in the second quarter of the year. Greece had originally expected its economy to grow by nearly three percent this year and workers like the now unemployed chambermaid in Rhodes had hoped for better rather than tougher times.
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