ATHENS – The number of tourists arriving at Greek airports fell 8.6 percent in the first seven months of the year, more evidence of how the global downturn is hitting a key sector of Greece’s economy, an industry body said on Monday.

However, if such a reduction is maintained in subsequent months, the outcome for 2009 would be better than the fall-off of about 10 percent in visitor numbers initially feared by the Touristic Research Institute (ITEP) and other tourism bodies.

Tourism employs about one in five people and accounts for a fifth of Greece’s 250 billion euro ($353.5 billion) economy, which faces the risk of recession after years of robust growth.

ITEP said in a statement the downtrend in arrivals continued in July but was partly offset by a 7.6 percent rise in visitors to Athens. Should this continue in August, the drop in tourist arrivals may be contained below 10 percent this year, it added.

‘It’s possible that the drop in 2009 international arrivals will not turn out a double-digit figure,’ ITEP said.

Some destinations such as the Ionian island of Kefalonia were badly hit, with arrivals down about 24 percent year-on-year, the tourism body said.

German and British visitors, who account for about 15 percent of the 15 million tourists visiting Greece each year, were down 50 and 35 percent respectively in Heraklion, the capital of the southern island of Crete, a popular destination.

All over Europe, the summer season looks bleak with fewer arrivals and lower revenues as travellers spend less, dragging countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain where tourism is a crucial source of income, deeper into crisis.

Greece’s GDP shrank 0.2 year-on-year in the second quarter, with the economy suffering its first contraction in 16 years. The IMF, the OECD and the European Commission have all forecast a recession in Greece this year although last week’s official figures showed GDP up 0.3 percent quarter-on-quarter in the March-June period.

More data on non-residents travel spending in June are due out on Tuesday when the central bank releases current account statistics.