Monday, 26 August 2013

It's Time To Look Beyond The Headlines In Greece

The difficult economic and political situation in Greece is well known by this time. Perhaps if you lived on a mountain top in Nepal you could have avoided the constant barrage of bad news about the country, but the rest of us are confronted with the same story every day over our breakfast cereal.  It seems that every time editors are faced with the problem of what to put in tomorrow’s newspaper or on tonight’s news show they can always rely on – or manufacture – yet another story about how Greece must leave the Euro or how unsustainable (editors love this word) the debt burden has become. No wonder those few people who still read newspapers prefer to start with the sports pages and comics.

There's much more to Greece than this
Having spent the better part of the last three months on an island in Greece I have to take serious issue with the general view of Greece. The situation is indeed serious, but far from hopeless. Buried in the avalanche of depressing news are many examples of excellence, fortitude, and unrivalled beauty that should attract many more people than it does.

The stories about Greece have understandably focused on the completely dysfunctional public sector with its kleptomaniac so-called public servants. A friend of ours was recently given what has to be the most difficult – if not impossible – job in Greece: Minister for Administrative Reform. Such reform is definitely required, but extremely difficult in an environment where people confuse the need for administrative reform with the hated austerity that has caused real incomes to drop. Reform is even more difficult in Greece because it is the only country I can think of where the so-called political Left is fighting tooth and nail to preserve the status quo – a status quo that has driven the country to bankruptcy. Karl Marx must be turning over in his grave.

However, if one looks beneath the drastic headlines there are a few signs that things are beginning to pick up. If one bothered to look, one would find a number of companies that are doing quite well, thank you. These tend to be smaller companies that are flexible and imaginative enough to find new export markets and cope with a difficult financial situation where suppliers demand cash, insurers increase premiums because of the ‘Greek risk’, and normal working capital loans are scarce or non-existent.

The important tourism sector is showing signs of life as receipts were up more than 15% for the first five months of the year. Officials expect the number of tourists to increase from 16 million in 2012 to 17 million this year. Prices, especially compared to Turkey just across the Aegean, have certainly come down sharply. An article in Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper on Sunday reported that a meal in a fish restaurant in a small Aegean town starts at about $80 per person. A hamburger will set you back more than $25. And these prices are without any wine or beer whose prices have skyrocketed because of heavy taxes. Prices on the hot spot of Mykonos in Greece may approach this level, but everywhere else we ate was far less expensive. Hotels in central Athens have responded to the crisis by lowering prices and seeing their occupancy rates increase.

Tourists would find even lower prices if they were willing to go farther afield than the usual destinations of Mykonos, Santorini and other locations noted primarily for ear-splitting techno music. The beautiful Sporades islands of Skopelos, Alonissos, or  Trikera offer spectacular scenery unlike any other island I have seen in Greece. Where the usual Aegean island is fairly barren and often short of water, these islands are covered with dense forests that march down to dramatic cliffs plunging into the sea. I was reminded of the coast of Maine in my native New England with one major exception. You can happily dive into the sea surrounding these islands without suffering the threat of cardiac arrest from freezing water.

Alonissos at sunset

Dense forests . . . and the sea is warm
On a more personal note we have just completed major renovation of my wife’s 160-year-old family home. I have never seen better work anywhere – not in the United States and not in Britain. The workers showed up six days a week, on time, worked meticulously, and at the end of each day cleaned up the mess of broken plaster they had removed from the underlying solid stone structure. Old, broken mouldings were beautifully restored. All of this was done with local labour from the island. The contractor told us two years ago the work would take two months. He was only two weeks off because we had to replace more plaster than anticipated, and it took time to dry before we could paint. And the entire project was completed within the budget the contractor set long before the job began. Meanwhile the town had finally completed the job of placing utility cables underground, and we could do away with the web of about 10 different cables that had been attached to the front of the house.

By no means do I wish to suggest that Greece has climbed out of its deep financial hole or that it is happily on its way to functioning like a Scandinavian country where most people pay taxes and bureaucrats actually serve the people instead of the other way around. But there are unmistakable signs of change, however small and fragile at the moment. Anyone willing to look beyond the headlines will be pleasantly rewarded.

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