New series: Our past in peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis

Greek tourism, Greek
This is a sculpture of a fallen Greek warrior from the temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina. Made in the 5th century BC, it’s an important example of Early Classical Greek art. This was a time when Greek artists began imitating life with realistic poses and expressions.

We owe so much to the ancient Greeks–our ideas of art, architecture, democracy, philosophy, theater, and a lot more. When Greece was conquered by the Romans three centuries after this sculpture was made, Greek culture actually flourished, finding new outlets in the receptive and expanding Roman Empire. Horace once said: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror). The suffering yet proud face on this fallen warrior reflects Greek history–cycles of tragedy and triumph.

Suffering yet proud. That’s the impression I get of Greece these days. An economy in shambles, general strikes, people being forced to give up their children. At the same time, an increasing number of Greeks are going back to the land and sea to revitalize the traditional cornerstones of the Greek economy. Meanwhile, Greeks from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest cutbacks that threaten their livelihood.

The cutbacks threaten our past too. Not the Greek past, our past, because Western civilization is based to a large extent on Greek civilization. Regular general strikes against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF mean that seeing the physical remains of our heritage has become a game of chance. A minister’s suggestion to lease the Acropolis and other ancient sites was treated with scorn one week, and approved the next. Three important paintings, including one by Picasso, were stolen from the Athens National Gallery because cutbacks had left only one guard on duty. And it can get far, far worse. Allowing Greece to fall would be like burning an attic full of family heirlooms and photo albums.

For the next week I’ll be in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation’s ability to conserve and restore our heritage? I’ll also be seeing, strikes permitting, some of the nation’s greatest monuments such as the Acropolis and Agora, as well as lesser-known treasures such as Mistra, briefly the capital of the Roman Empire, and the Crusader castle of Villehardouin.

Unfortunately, this sculpture will not be among them. It’s now the property of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. The same country whose banks currently own the second largest share of Greek national debt after France. The statue of the fallen Greek was taken by a German baron in 1811 when Greece was under the control of a different foreign power–the Ottoman Empire.

Next in the series: Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Should Greece lease the Acropolis?

lease the Acropolis
Greece has been hit hard by the recession. According to EU figures, it has 18.8 percent unemployment, the second highest in Europe and more than twice that of the United States. Last year it saw its economy shrink by 5.5 percent.

Now former deputy health minister Gerasimos Giakoumatos has suggested a controversial plan to get Greece some quick cash–lease the Acropolis and other famous sights. According to the China Daily, Giakoumatos, who is a minister of parliament and a member of the conservative New Democracy party, said the move would save Greece from bankruptcy.

He said there’s no shame in leasing out Greece’s heritage, and that the real shame is that regular protests against austerity measures keep shutting the sites down. Giakoumatos said the money could go to save the government from having to slash pensions and wages.

Even with the current economic woes, tourism accounts for 18 percent of the country’s GDP and is worth tens of millions of euros each month. While Giakoumatos’ suggestion carries no weight of law, it may be given some consideration because of the huge amount of money that could be earned.

What do you think of a nation leasing out its heritage in times of trouble? Tell us what you think in the poll and comments section!

Photo courtesy Roger Wollstadt.

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Historic structures in Ireland may lose protection

Ireland, milestoneArchaeologists are speaking out against a plan by the government of the Republic of Ireland to “delist” historic and archaeological sites that date to after 1700.

This would mean there will be no government protection for many of Ireland’s historic homes, holy wells, and other bits of architecture, such as this funky milestone at Howth, photographed by William Murphy.

The Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland said in a public statement at the end of last year that deep cuts in heritage management threatened to undermine the government’s plan to promote tourism as part of Ireland’s economic recovery. While funding to protect historic structures has gone down, funding to promote cultural tourism is up. Not funding some of the very things that tourists come to Ireland for, the Institute says, “is akin to spending money on a new car but finding that you can’t afford to pay for the petrol.”

The economic crisis has led to belt tightening in many countries. Some Dutch museums are planning to sell part of their collections to survive, while the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum may close in Baltimore.

Museums plan to sell collections to survive

museum, museums
Museums in The Netherlands have received some bad news–national funding for arts and culture will drop from 900 million euros to 700 million in 2013. Now museums and other institutions are scrambling to figure out how to survive.

The Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam has come up with a controversial plan. They’re going to sell off their African and American collections in order to raise money.

While this has caused an understandable uproar, it makes sense in some ways. The Wereldmuseum’s main collections are in Asian and Pacific art, such as the Korwar figurines from New Guinea pictured above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. These will not be sold. Other museums in the country are known for African and American art, so the Dutch and the tourists won’t be left without. It’s also a major opportunity for museums that still have decent funding for new acquisitions, assuming there are any.

There are still plenty of downsides. The Wereldmuseum and any other institution that tries this tactic will lose some of the diversity of their collections. It makes it harder for them to participate in the exchanges of artwork that help create bonds between different museums and the creation of major exhibitions. The sale will probably also see some of artifacts leave the country or go into private hands, and out of sight of the general public.

For the Wereldmuseum in particular it means losing some of its unique character. The collection is partially made up of objects brought back by Dutch traders, who in past centuries were one of the major economic powers on the high seas and traded to all corners of the globe. At the moment the collection reflects that. To secure its future, the Wereldmuseum will have to discard some of its past.

It may even undermine its own name. Wereldmuseum translates to “World Museum”.

Bank of China offers expanded yuan service

yuan, China, chinaThe Bank of China has begun offering its customers in New York City and Los Angeles services in yuan, Bloomberg reports. Services include deposit, exchange, remittance, and trade finance. Business customers may access these services in New York City and Los Angeles, while at the moment individual customers can only access these services at the New York City branch.

What does this mean for travelers? Not much, yet. If you’re one of the many English teachers in China you can send money home more easily, but that’s about it.

It’s the long-term view that’s interesting. China is obviously trying to expand the range of the yuan (also called the renminbi) beyond its borders. In fact, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said as much last year when he expressed worry over how much China’s international assets are dominated by the dollar. This move allows international trading in yuan, which is sure to attract more investment and, if it’s successful, bolster the currency’s strength. It’s already at an all-time high against the dollar. The New York branch’s general manager says the move will eventually lead to the yuan being fully exchangeable with the dollar.

This will encourage further investment in China and could lead to more foreign businesses opening up shop there. It would also make it easier for international travel businesses to have offices in China. A yuan that’s strong against the dollar, however, will make trips to China more expensive for Americans.

Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the Chinese economy. More and more Chinese are traveling abroad, and with greater access and use of their currency, those numbers will only increase. The World Trade Organization says if current trends continue, China will have the largest share of the world’s tourism industry by 2020, with 8.6 percent of global revenue.

Could yuan become another international currency like the dollar and the euro? Could we see money changers accepting them in more destinations? Only time will tell.

[Photo courtesy user Polylepsis via Wikimedia Commons]