Dispatch

Greece Is for Tourists

As foreigners flood the country, ordinary Greeks can’t afford the sacred rite of a summer holiday.

Athenians swim on a rocky beach along the Athenian Riviera.
Athenians swim on a rocky beach along the Athenian Riviera.
Athenians swim on a rocky beach along the Athenian Riviera close to the Greek capital of Athens on July 5. As prices soar for ordinary Greeks, more Athenians are taking their summer vacations closer to home. Ayman Oghanna Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and broadcaster based in Athens.

ATHENS—On the southern slopes of the Acropolis, tourists in flip-flops clamber across rough rocks in search of the perfect Parthenon selfie. The city’s central cafes are crammed. And, down at the port, officials in pristine white uniforms carefully direct the cars, people, and bicycles setting sail across the Aegean Sea. It’s summer in Athens, and the Greek tourism industry is having a very good year.

As a smallish country of only 10.3 million people, Greece is already set to beat the country’s 2019 record of 33.1 million foreign visitors, now welcoming more than 1 million travelers a week, according to Greek Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias. Hotels on popular Greek islands are fully booked through late September—well beyond the traditional season—and celebrity spotting has become a sport. Images of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, actress Demi Moore, and rapper 50 Cent are being posted from the bars of Mykonos, the waters of the Ionian Sea, and the yachts of the Cyclades.

But ordinary Greeks are not basking in Greece’s successful summer.

ATHENS—On the southern slopes of the Acropolis, tourists in flip-flops clamber across rough rocks in search of the perfect Parthenon selfie. The city’s central cafes are crammed. And, down at the port, officials in pristine white uniforms carefully direct the cars, people, and bicycles setting sail across the Aegean Sea. It’s summer in Athens, and the Greek tourism industry is having a very good year.

As a smallish country of only 10.3 million people, Greece is already set to beat the country’s 2019 record of 33.1 million foreign visitors, now welcoming more than 1 million travelers a week, according to Greek Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias. Hotels on popular Greek islands are fully booked through late September—well beyond the traditional season—and celebrity spotting has become a sport. Images of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, actress Demi Moore, and rapper 50 Cent are being posted from the bars of Mykonos, the waters of the Ionian Sea, and the yachts of the Cyclades.

But ordinary Greeks are not basking in Greece’s successful summer.


Tourists pose for selfies at the foot of the Acropolis.
Tourists pose for selfies at the foot of the Acropolis.

Tourists pose for selfies at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens on Aug. 11.

“Greece is for tourists only,” said Amalia Zavacopoulou, a single working mother from Athens. “Everything is more expensive, from fuel to something as simple as a souvlaki [a Greek staple street food],” and ordinary Greeks, she said, are struggling to keep up with the budgets of their foreign guests.

Her electricity bills have risen nearly 50 percent since before the pandemic. Fuel costs in Greece have risen by more than 23 percent this year due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and Russian efforts to starve Europe of energy. Greece relies on Russia for about 40 percent of its natural gas, so it has been hit particularly hard.

Inflation hit 12 percent this summer, its highest level in 29 years, according to data released by Eurostat, the official statistical authority of the European Union. And in a nation where the minimum wage is 713 euros per month, more than 43 percent of the labor force can’t afford to take a holiday, according to a survey by the European Trade Union Institute. Return ferry tickets to an island last year for a family of four, including a car, cost around 600 euros.

This year, it’s over 850 euros, according to the Greek Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy. The cheapest hotel on the Greek island of Mykonos this week costs at least 200 euros per night. That’s prohibitive even for most middle class Greeks. In total, a family holiday to a modest island destination would cost someone earning double the minimum wage a full month’s salary. And that’s before accounting for food, drinks, and restaurant costs.

Yet Athenians’ biggest complaint of all is the rise in rent.

“We in Greece had the big financial problems of 2010 to 2016. We recovered. Everything went well, and then came COVID, and then the war,” said Giorgios Stampoulos, an Athens cab driver for over 22 years. “Now, the tourists came back. We have a lot of tourists. … But the problem is we can’t afford an apartment because it’s all Airbnb for tourists, and if you find something, they want double or triple from last year.”

Before the pandemic, a modest two-bedroom apartment in central Athens would rent for roughly 300 euros a month. Now, the monthly price is at least 550 euros. Prices in large part have soared as tourists, expatriates, and digital nomads are making the most of the capital’s comparatively low rents and living costs. “If you have a Western European salary, Athens is a good base,” said 27-year-old Ben Biasi, a French tourist strolling through the pedestrian backstreets of Athens’s Plaka neighborhood.

Giorigios Stampoulos waits for tourists arriving at Athens International Airport.
Giorigios Stampoulos waits for tourists arriving at Athens International Airport.

Giorigios Stampoulos, 50, an Athens cab driver for over 22 years, waits for tourists arriving at Athens International Airport on July 5.

Taxis and buses wait outside Athens International Airport.
Taxis and buses wait outside Athens International Airport.

Taxis and buses wait outside Athens International Airport to pick up tourists seeking a ride into the city on July 5.

“Let’s go to an island, buy a house, and work from the house!” he said to his group of friends.

Companies like Airbnb and Booking.com have been catering to not only tourists but those seeking longer-term stays. One such company is Blueground, which has more than 1,000 fully furnished apartments in Athens, rented out to mostly U.S. citizens for around 1,200 euros per month.

“Business is a booming! It’s good,” said Demetri Geras, 27, from Blueground. “They come for the sun. It’s the Florida of Europe.”

A family holiday to a modest island destination would cost someone earning double the minimum wage a full month’s salary.

As a Greek-American with family here, however, Geras recognizes the hardships that Greeks are facing. “Most of the youth here are living with their parents. They make less than 1,000 euros a month, so they can’t move out.” Although he works in property, Geras sees the problem as a lack of fair employment opportunity and remuneration from employers.

“We can point fingers at people in real estate, but it’s almost criminal how much [Greeks] get paid,” he said. “They are almost starving. … Wages are not so great due to austerity measures and low Greek minimum wage. Food and rent have gone up. Homeowners have raised their Airbnb prices for foreigners who are coming to Athens. And Greeks are the ones paying the price.”


A street vendor sits in central Athens.
A street vendor sits in central Athens.

A street vendor sits in central Athens on Aug. 18.

One of those people paying the price is street artist and graphic designer Kostas Sergiou, 36. “I’m struggling,” he said. “In March, I had a health problem, a panic attack. … The cause was stress.” Sergiou’s landlady put up his rent, and now, he’s struggling to find the money to pay his bills.

Summer holidays are sacred to Greeks, and most Athenians tend to flee the city heat for vacations on the coast or mountains. Sergiou is staying put. “I prefer to stay here because I feel less stressed. … For us Greeks, it’s cheaper to go on a trip outside Greece than to an island.”

Despite the economic hardships, Greeks are still finding ways to have a break. Drive along the coast from Athens to the ancient Temple of Poseidon, known as Sounio, this summer, and you will find lines of parked cars dotted around rocky swimming holes. The so-called Athenian Riviera is packed.

As city residents seek swims closer to home, Greeks also continue to have a relatively high level of property ownership within their families, and many Greeks are choosing to take breaks at their family homes or with friends who own property. Others are finding cheaper alternatives like “free camping,” playing a cat-and-mouse game with authorities as they erect tents along the coast before being told to move on or saturating areas where it is tolerated, such as the far-flung Greek island of Tilos, which has seen a spike in campers this year.

Others, still, are going abroad to European destinations like Berlin, Sergiou said, as Greece becomes unaffordable.

But amid it all, a trace of traditional Greek attitudes remains. “Open your Instagram, and you see everyone splashing about. … Summer is summer,” Sergiou said. “Greek people will go wherever they can and face their problems in September.”

Tourists watch a street performer below the Acropolis.
Tourists watch a street performer below the Acropolis.

Tourists watch a street performer below the Acropolis in the Greek capital, Athens, on June 27.

Ayman Oghanna is a journalist, photographer, and broadcaster based in Athens. Twitter: @AymanOghanna Instagram: @ayman_oghanna

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.