ATHENS, Greece — Glum tourists sat on suitcases in Greece’s main port of Piraeus as yet another strike against austerity measures prevented them from boarding ferries Wednesday to dream Aegean island vacations at the start of the nation’s lucrative summer holiday season.
The scenes of desperate foreigners, scuffles and angry exchanges between striking workers and travelers deal a further blow to the vital tourism industry, which accounts for 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and one in five jobs.
Members of a Communist-backed labor group, known as PAME, were undaunted by a court decision late Tuesday declaring a port strike illegal. Dawn found them forming barricades on ferry gangplanks, preventing bemused passengers from heading to top tourist destinations such as the islands of the Cyclades or Crete.
They linked arms and chanted slogans to the jeers and boos of irate Greek passengers as bemused foreigners looked on.
“We can’t go to Santorini and we have the hotel paid, and if we don’t take these boats, we lose a lot of money,” said Claudia, a Spanish tourist who gave only her first name.
By early afternoon, some tourists were resigning themselves to a disrupted vacation.
“We’ve been waiting for three hours. … I don’t know where we’ll spend the night,” said Lena Jensenn, a Danish tourist who had been waiting for three hours with her two young children to board a ferry to the eastern Aegean island of Leros.
Workers have staged strikes and demonstrations to protest government austerity measures that raise retirement ages, cut civil servants’ salaries and increase consumer taxes in an effort to pull the country out of a financial crisis that brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy last month. Default was narrowly averted by the first installment of a euro110 billion ($130 billion) package of rescue loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
“The measures that the government is passing … are leading workers way below poverty levels,” said striking worker Sotiris Pontikogiannis.
Unions representing several sectors, including hospital staff, construction workers, accountants and the food industry, joined PAME’s 24-hour strike, while railway workers were also carrying out two-hour work stoppages during the day, disrupting intercity trains. Hundreds of strikers marched through central Athens, chanting slogans and holding banners calling for a general uprising.
But it is scenes such as those in Piraeus that are the most worrying for both the government and those involved in the country’s vital tourism industry, which is already suffering an average 10-12 percent drop in bookings this season.
In an effort to reassure foreigners worried their holidays will be derailed, Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos pledged this week that Greece would cover the extra costs of any visitors stranded due to strikes or even natural disasters.
“We have worked with the Ministry of the Economy to guarantee any extra cost any visitor incurs in Greece whether because of a strike or a natural disaster,” he said Monday during a presentation to foreign media of the country’s new tourism campaign.
“We have guaranteed to pay any extra room and board any visitor of Greece pays, even if stuck here because of a volcano in Iceland,” he said.
But it was unclear whether a plan was actually in place for such compensation. Despite repeated calls to the ministry, it could not provide any details by Wednesday afternoon of whether or how tourists stranded on islands or in Athens due to the Piraeus blockade could claim for their extra room and travel expenses.
With no heavy industry or particularly strong exports, tourism is Greece’s best hope of generating revenue. But the crisis is already taking its toll.
Nikos Kavalieros, general director of the Shipping Business Union, which represents 120 passenger ships, said the peak season had now been reduced to a period of about 45 days from the four months it used to be, as passengers curtail their trips.
“In the last few years there’s been a decline, but this is the worst year yet,” he said. The ferry industry has seen a drop of about 30 percent in passenger, vehicle and cargo traffic this year due to the financial crisis, he said, noting that coastal shipping companies had also been hit by an increase in fuel prices and taxes.
If such a situation continues, Kavalieros said, “long term … coastal shipping will die.
“As the right to strike is respected, so is the right to work,” he said. “Unfortunately here, only the right to strike is respected.”