, BERLIN, Germany, Mar 11 – Greece, long loved by tourists for its white-washed chapels, sun-kissed islands and turquoise Mediterranean seas, is trying to shake its new image as Europe’s frontline state in the migrant crisis.
At Berlin’s ITB, which bills itself as the world’s leading travel trade show, Greek tourism professionals are at pains to stress that their crisis-battered country remains a premier holiday getaway.
“We believe that 2016 will be even better than last year because if there were some problems last year on some islands, there is now a return to stability,” said Greek Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura.
“Measures have been taken at the European level and the number of refugee arrivals has declined,” she said, providing an optimistic take as Greece continues to play host to tens of thousands of refugees in tent cities and shelters.
For Greece – long battered by recession and a drawn out financial crisis – tourism is a lucrative and vital sector, making up some 20 percent of gross domestic product and accounting for about one in five jobs.
Greece’s beloved islands, among them world-famous Corfu and Santorini, have long depended on cruise ships and package holiday companies that every year deliver sun-starved Germans, Britons and travellers from elsewhere around the world.
But in recent months the islands especially of the eastern Aegean, some just a few miles off the Turkish coast, have become the EU’s main gateway for refugees fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
More than 131,000 people made the perilous crossings since the start of 2016, of whom 122,000 landed on Greek beaches, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Last year, Greek islands took in more than 840,000 migrants.