ELOUNDA, Greece — It’s late afternoon but the relentless summer sun still beats down from a clear sky above picturesque Crete, Greece’s largest island.
Just outside Elounda, a tourist town on the island’s northeastern coast, sun-dappled water laps onto a pebbly stretch of shore where a few holidaymakers are stretched out on loungers shaded by wide umbrellas.
It may be high season, but this beach is half empty.
“It’s definitely much quieter this year,” says Tina Heeres, a Dutch woman in her early 40s who’s been running the beach’s bar for the past six seasons, “and people are taking much more care of how they spend their money.”
“If they buy their drinks and food, they maybe don’t spend on a lounger and umbrella, or the other way round,” she adds.
In town, bar owner Nikos Drakonakis nods in agreement.
“Last year was quiet but not like this year,” he says wiping his brow with a napkin, estimating that takings are down between 30 and 40 percent.
Accounts like these are bad news for Greece, which needs to attract every tourist it can this season.
The sector generates almost a fifth of Greek national output and will play a vital role in the country’s economic recovery, but in June figures from the Bank of Greece showed tourism receipts had plunged by 15.7 percent compared to last year, following a 10 percent decline in 2009.
Nikos says media coverage of violent protests against austerity measures in Athens and successive strikes have damaged Greece’s reputation — he fears potential visitors are heading to other sunny destinations such as Turkey.
Back near the water’s edge but perched on a cliff above the shore is the Blue Bay Hotel, where a handful of guests are cooling off in the swimming pool they have all to themselves.
The hotel’s director, Nikolaos Chronis, sips his coffee and lights a cigarette: “Things can’t really go much lower!” he says only half-joking.
After a troubling start to the season, he says business has recovered in the peak July-August period, and now the hotel’s bookings are the same as this time last year.
“I say thank God because the situation in general is still not so good,” Chronis says.
Upbeat news of an influx of tourists over the peak of the season was echoed by the president of Greece’s Association of Travel Agencies (HATTA), George Telonis.
“The sector has held out, visitor numbers are almost at the same level as 2009…and in receipts, we’re estimating a fall of 7-9 percent,” he told AFP.
As Chronis contemplates the Aegean view from his office, he says the outlook is much more positive: “Things in the country are more stable now fortunately, foreigners have a different idea of Greece from the start of the year.”
In March, he remembers guests arriving at the hotel “feeling a bit nervous” because of what they had seen reported in the media.
“People would ask if they could go out, if they could take a taxi, is it safe?” he says incredulously.
Though business at Blue Bay is improving, Chronis admits others have suffered 30 percent drops in occupancy, with hotels at the luxury end of the market hardest hit.
The vice-president of Crete’s local hoteliers union, Yannis Economou, assessed this summer season on the island as “average to bad”.
Business at his luxury hotel in the island’s main town Iraklion has struggled but he holds out hope that the worst of the crisis is over.
Back on the beach, John and Kath, a couple in their 50s from London, are drying off after taking their last dip of the day.
“Some of our friends from home decided not to come,” says Kath, after they were put off by the unrest earlier in the year, “but we were determined,” she adds admitting that she is enjoying the extra space left by those who have stayed away.
The couple have been holidaying at the same spot for the past 10 years.
“People who know Greece will take all the riots with a pretty large pinch of salt,” says John. “They know the Greek people and know that flashpoints are likely to be in Athens rather than on islands like Crete.”
Back on the beach, Tina the bar operator is shaking off the empty sunloungers and closing the last umbrellas.
“For me personally it’s been a much easier season,” she says cheerfully as the sun disappears behind the rocky cliff, casting the beach in shadow.
There may be fewer tourists she says, “but the ones who are here have chosen to come here to Greece, they really want to be here.”
“They’re happy and relaxed which means we are as well,” she adds.