Greece’s promise to recompense tourists affected by industrial action was tested today as thousands of holidaymakers were left stranded by a general strike over the economic austerity measures.
Images of foreign visitors holed up at ports and airports dominated protests timed to coincide with a key vote in parliament on laws overhauling pensions. The pension system is widely seen as the root cause of the country’s economic woes.
From Alexandroupolis in the north-east to Crete in the south unsuspecting tourists were caught out as flights, rail and ferry services were disrupted.
The strike, the sixth in as many months, saw shutters come down nationwide as workers in the public and private sectors joined the walkout. At Athens international airport 89 flights were cancelled and 109 rescheduled as air traffic controllers heeded union calls to join the protests. Striking workers kept office blocks, schools, hospitals and banks closed.
But with tourist-dependent Greece staking its economic recovery this summer on visitors’ foreign currency, officials insisted the government would make good its pledge on compensation.
The ruling socialists have vowed to pay up to €70 (£58) a day to cover costs incurred because of strikes. “We are guaranteeing to pay any extra room and board any visitor in Greece pays,” said the tourism minister, Pavlos Geroulanos. “Even if [they are] stuck here because of a volcano in Iceland.”
The promise highlights the extent to which Athens will go to attract tourists; the sector accounts for one in five jobs in Greece and nearly 20% of its GDP.
Britons, who top the league tables of arrivals after Germans, are being especially courted, with the tourism ministry going so far as to create a Greek beach on the bank of the river Thames last month.
Tourism has nosedived this year after public protests over the policies demanded by the international community in return for a €110bn rescue package. More often than not tourists have cited strikes when cancelling bookings.
About 18,000 people marched through Athens today, compared with the 50,000 who took to the streets when demonstrations left three dead in May. But the protests show no sign of letting up.
With Greece experiencing its worst economic crisis, the prime minister, George Papandreou, agreed to a three-year €30bn austerity programme to reign in debt of €310bn.
But the shake-up of the social security system, which is reducing pensions, raising the retirement age and lowering basic salaries, has proved to be more contentious than any other measure so far, with Papandreou facing his biggest test since assuming power last October.
Senior members of the ruling socialist party have expressed disquiet over reforms that they say will require them to surrender left-wing principles. Some have hinted they might even vote down the legislation.