Όλο το άρθρο της μεγάλης κυκλοφορίας εφημερίδας - The GuardianDebt-stricken Greece banks on tourism - Upmarket resort has officials asking if private investors hold the key
Nearly 200 years after the battle of Navarino, a key event in Greek history, Panayiotis Psiloliknos steers his smoky tug across the bay where it was fought. It was here, he says, in the craggy coves of one of the Mediterranean's largest natural harbours, that Greece won its struggle for independence. "In a single day," he enthuses, "an armada of Ottoman ships was destroyed by British, Russian and French forces.
" Few are as well placed to reveal the secrets of these waters. Yet, until now, the boatman has been starved of an audience that might appreciate his expertise. "There's been a problem," he adds. "We haven't had work as we haven't had the tourists." But this year, in a reversal of the fortunes stalking debt-stricken Greece, local business has picked up. Holidaymakers who might never have visited the site have begun to stop by, thanks to the vision of Vassilis Constantakopoulos, a rags-to-riches seaman who has poured more than €1bn (£820m) of his personal wealth into creating a 130-hectare resort that has put this otherwise overlooked corner of the Peloponnese on the map. As the government desperately tries to woo tourists – going so far as to set up a Greek beach on the banks of the river Thames last week – it is a vision that has got officials asking whether big-time private investors are now the answer to revitalising an industry on which so much of Greece's recovery depends. "It's a huge investment," says Giorgos Chronopoulos, the mayor of Pylos in Messinia, "and it's the only positive thing to happen in our region in years. "Do I endorse all its golf courses? Not particularly. Do I think one man should own so much land? Not especially. But at a time of such economic difficulty this investment has offered jobs and hope. It has managed to do what no government has done so far, which is to successfully decentralise. Villages that were once dead have now come alive again. It's given us optimism for the future." It took Constantakopoulos, known universally as Captain Vassilis, almost 15 years to create Costa Navarino, Greece's biggest ever tourism project. Navigating the labyrinthine red-tape, so blamed for the country's lack of competitiveness, might have felled other men: the resort required more than 4,000 permits and 10,000 signatures to get off the ground. In the course of such Herculean labours, roads were re-routed and over 6,000 olive trees transplanted to retain the region's natural beauty. With some 2,500 local employees, Costa Navarino even has its own fire brigade. But his perseverance appears to have paid off: since opening its doors last month, the year-round complex has drawn more high-end holidaymakers, with deep-pocketed Americans at the helm, than any other destination in Greece. Even its €27,000-a-day 'presidential' suite has been a sell-out. "My father came from a small village not far from here. He saw the sea for the first time when he was 13. He started out as a deck hand and then spent 20 years travelling the world," said his son, Achilles Constantakopoulos, who runs the development. "He has said repeatedly that he doesn't want people here to have go through what he did, which is to leave the region to find work. As a project this is 80% about boosting the economy of Messinia, and 20% about boosting the resort." No other sector could help regain Greece's competitiveness – or offset its rising debt and shrinking economy – more than tourism. With one-in-five jobs dependent on the industry, it generates close to 20% of GDP. But this year has been worse than most, with hoteliers reporting a drop of almost 12% in bookings compared to 2009, which was itself a poor year. Sparked by persistent protests over drastic austerity measures enacted in return for €110bn in emergency loans, the downturn could cost Greece €4.4bn if revenues drop, as some fear, by a further 15%. After demonstrations degenerated into violence last May, with three employees killed in the firebombing of a bank in central Athens, an estimated 20,000 bookings were cancelled in the capital and neighbouring resorts. Leading the exodus are recession-hit Britons and Germans – usually Greece's top visitors. In the face of further strikes over pay and pension cuts, the government took the unprecedented step last week of promising to cover the costs of tourists stranded by industrial action. In such conditions, Costa Navarino's trailblazing course – by 2013 it plans to have built the world's first earth-sheltered villas – has not been lost on officials in prime minister George Papandreou's socialist government. For too long, they say, Greece has been typecast by association: overly identified with the leisurely image of the country as a laid back destination of sun, sand and sea. "When the economic crisis hit, that image of leisure and luxury, of Greeks living the good life spending everybody else's money, tallied exactly with the way Greece was being portrayed by the [foreign] media," Pavlos Geroulanos, the culture and tourism minister told the Guardian.
Costa Navarino broke the mould.
"They have done a fantastic job after years of painstaking work, boosting the economy of a little-known region with high-quality, all-year-round tourism," he said. "Its success or failure will show whether it is the right formula." But in the meantime, the resort has demonstrated how private investors, both big and small, could play a role in the rebirth of cash-strapped Greece.