Everyone who can afford it should visit Greece this summer. That was the conclusion I reached after reading a heartbreaking story about malnourished children in Greece on the front page of Thursday’s New York Times. According to Liz Alderman’s piece, malnutrition is a serious and growing problem in Greece, where the unemployment rate has reached 27 percent and even those who are employed have seen their wages slashed due to austerity measures. Alderman interviewed Greek school officials and others who have seen school kids stealing food, fainting or appearing listless due to hunger and foraging through trash bins for leftovers.
Greece is very near and dear to my heart so I had a difficult time making it through the story. Last year international tourist arrivals to Greece in the first nine months of the year (January-September) declined by 5 percent overall at a time when Greece needed tourists most. Even worse, arrivals from the United States plummeted by 19.2 percent. Images of protests in Athens no doubt scared away plenty of American tourists and some Germans stayed away in part because of a perceived backlash over austerity negotiations.
Avoiding Greece because of safety concerns is silly. Athens has crime just like any other large city but the Greek Islands are as safe and idyllic as any place in the world. Even if you are concerned about Athens, you can fly directly to islands like Kos, Rhodes, Samos, Kefalonia, Crete, Zakynthos, Corfu, Mykonos or Santorini on Aegean Airlines, or on budget carriers like Ryanair or EasyJet.
Greece is obviously not the only country in the world where there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat and it’s far from the world’s poorest country. Child poverty is a huge problem all over the world, including right here in the United States. In February, I visited Nicaragua and the poverty that exists there is sickening. But there may not be another place on earth where people’s standard of living has declined as precipitously as it has in Greece over the last couple years. There are desperately poor people all over the developing world but many of today’s poor in Greece are people who had stable jobs and incomes just a few years ago.
The reality is that most Americans aren’t going to plan a trip based on a desire to help alleviate poverty far from home. But Greece is actually an easy sell, regardless of the moral case for visiting the country. Great weather, tasty food, reasonable prices, historical sites, welcoming people and picture perfect beaches on dozens of islands where you’ll think you died and went to heaven. Greeks are proud of their country, regardless of its dire economic situation, and if you express in interest in knowing more about their country and its culture, 1,000 doors will be opened for you.
I’ve been to Greece many times, including a six-week stint in the Greek Isles last year, and I’m always amazed at how few Americans venture anywhere in Greece outside of Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. On Kos, Patmos, Samos and Crete last year, we found plenty of bargains and I’ve been daydreaming about these places ever since I left Greece last June. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries and I have deep family ties to Italy but Greece is the place I dream about on gloomy days in Chicago. It’s the one place that somehow stays with me after I leave.
In the shoulder season, it’s easy to find comfortable accommodation on most of the Greek Islands for as little as 50 euros per night. A good meal can be had for 7-10 euros, a half liter of house wine can be as little as 2 euros and if you need to get some work done, there are scores of beachfront restaurants and bars that have Wi-Fi all over the busier Greek Islands. Flights to Greece from the U.S. are pricey but you can save money by finding a cheap flight to London and then booking a discount flight on to the Greek Islands from there.
But will it help?
How can you make sure that your trip to Greece will actually have a positive impact? Here are a few tips.
Spend Wisely. Stay at smaller, family owned hotels and bed and breakfasts, or rent apartments or rooms from local people. Spread your money around by patronizing local restaurants rather than eating at the hotel and buy handicrafts and art directly from the people who make them.
Use a Credit Card or At Least Ask for an Official Receipt. Tax evasion has long been a huge issue in Greece and it’s easier for businesses to hide money when they are paid in cash.
Hire Guides. A local guide can greatly enrich your trip and it helps funnel cash directly into the local economy. Even if you don’t like to tour archaeological or historic sites, consider hiring a guide to take you sailing or on a hike.
Volunteer or Donate Cash. Non-profits like Prolepsis, Desmos, Bourome, SOS Children’s Villages, The Smile of the Child and a host of others all do great work and you don’t have to visit Greece to make a donation. And if you can spare a little time to volunteer, you might find the experience to be a life changer.
Tourists can’t save Greece but they sure can help. And if you’d rather stay close to home this summer, think about how you spend your tourist dollars and who will benefit from your expenditures.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]