A decade on from the economic crisis that forced Greece to implement severe austerity in exchange for remaining within the European Union (EU), the country appears to be turning a corner. There's a long way to go to full recovery, but key economic indicators are looking positive, with tourism, in particular, going gangbusters – though that is creating its own set of problems. Meanwhile, the plight of the country's 67,100 refugees and migrants remains perilous.
Immigration & Asylum
A primary entry point for immigrants to Europe, Greece has seen over 1.3 million people arrive in the country since 2015 in search of sanctuary and a better life. Most come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Africa. Adding to the pressure has been a sharp increase in Turkish political refugees crossing the land border.
In 2016 a deal between the EU and Turkey brought the closure of European borders with Greece and a plan to return illegal migrants to Turkey, in an attempt to discourage migrants from making the dangerous sea crossing to reach Greece. In exchange, the EU committed to giving Turkey €6 billion to deal with their own refugee crisis. The numbers of refugees reaching the islands dropped drastically as did the number of drownings.
Nevertheless, many NGOs and humanitarian groups believe the deal has not only been unsuccessful but has increased human suffering. Between April 2016 and December 2018 1806 refugees were returned to Turkey, while in October 2018 alone, 3370 people made the illegal sea crossing to the Greek islands. The vast majority remain stranded in places such as Lebsos and Samos, where conditions in overflowing camps are squalid and dangerous. Increased trauma and depression have also brought a rise in suicide attempts. Not considering Turkey any kind of safe haven, many refugees feel trapped and have run out of money and hope.
Golden Visas & China
At the other end of the economic scale, Greece has aimed to boost immigration of wealthy migrants by granting five-year renewable 'golden visas' to those investing a minimum of €250,000 on the purchase of a home in the country. Chinese, Russian, Turkish and Middle Eastern investors have all sought to take advantage of this opportunity and real estate values in key locations such as Athens, Corfu and Santorini have all improved as a consequence.
But while rising prices may have benefited cash-strapped Greek property owners, it is also meaning that renters are being priced out of the property market. And as landlords in cities such as Athens have sold up or turned their long-term rentals into short term Airbnb-style lets, their former tenants are being pushed out of desirable city centre locations to the margins.
China in particular has become a key player in Greece's struggling economy. In 2016, China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), a state-owned shipping and logistics services, bought a 67% stake in Piraueus for €368.5 million, in the process becoming the port's primary operator. The plan is to make Piraeus China's entry point to Europe under its One Belt, One Road project to increase trade with the EU.
Coping with Overtourism
As a way of boosting the economy, Greece has gone all out in recent years to play up to its natural advantages as a holiday destination. In this respect it has been remarkably successful – a record 33 million people visited the country in 2018, making Greece one of the most popular destinations in the world. The downside is that Greece's loveliest and most iconic locations are also now struggling with the scourge of overtourism.
For Santorini, in particular, the exponential growth in visitor numbers (in peak season anywhere between 10,000 and 18,000 people a day were disembarking mammoth cruise ships for tours of the island) has created havoc. The island's electricity and water supply resources have been pushed to their limits, while the amount of rubbish generated over the last five years has doubled. In 2019 Santorini capped daily cruise ship passenger arrivals at 8000. There's also been an international outcry over the plight of the island's donkeys, used to transport luggage and provide rides to tourists along Santorini's sharply inclined pathways. The animals have been suffering an increase in injuries and exhaustion. The government has since made it illegal to burden animals with loads exceeding 100 kg (15 st), or one-fifth of their body weight.
To tackle overtourism, the Greek National Tourism Organisation (GNTO) is encouraging visits to the country outside of the main travel season (May to September), developing year round attractions and highlighting lesser known beauty and cultural spots around the country.