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ATHENS (Reuters) - Greek tourism revenues are expected to bounce back this year to pre-crisis levels, the industry said on Thursday following the return of political stability to the country.
Visitors from Germany, Britain and Russia are expected back.
The Mediterranean country has pinned its hopes on its sun-drenched beaches and ancient monuments to pull itself out of a deep recession. Tourism is the Greek economy's biggest cash-earner, accounting for about 17 percent of output.
Andreas Andreadis, head of Greece's main tourism body SETE, said tourism revenues are seen rising by up to 10 percent this year to 11 billion euros on the back of an expected record 17 million visitors.
"We are heading for a record year in terms of foreign tourist arrivals," he said in an interview with Reuters. "Our target of about 11 billion euros in direct revenues is feasible and we may even exceed it."
If SETE's forecast is met, receipts will rise to their highest level since 2009, when Greece's debt crisis began. That sparked violent street protests that scared off visitors.
Hoteliers, restaurant owners and tourism businesses have slashed prices and upgraded their services to weather the crisis and lure more visitors, Andreadis said. A better mix of tourist markets - tourists who stay longer and spend more on average - will also help the rise year on year, he said.
About 40 percent of Greece's hotels are now listed under the 4-star or 5-star categories, up from 25 percent during the 2004 Athens Olympics, he said, adding that positive feedback from last year's visitors had also helped pre-bookings.
"Fears that Greeks would be negative towards tourists - Germans for instance - were dismissed last year and now fears have been replaced with confidence," said Andreadis.
Summer bookings from Germany and the UK were up 15 percent and 20 percent respectively, mainly due to reduced uncertainty over the country's future in the euro zone and fewer violent protests since a stable government took over in June, he said.
Greece's main competitors are Spain, Croatia, Turkey and Egypt. Political uncertainty and turmoil in Egypt is turning some visitors towards Greece, Andreadis said.
"What usually affects tourism is strikes and social unrest," he said. "Greece is very quiet this year compared with Italy, Spain and Portugal, it's 'business as usual'."
A popular summer destination for decades, mainly with Germans and Britons, Greece is now attracting increasing numbers of tourists from Eastern Europe.
A 30 percent rise in Russian tourists will also add to revenues, Andreadis said. Almost 900,000 Russians visited Greece in 2012, a threefold increase in just three years.
Russians stay longer and spend more than the average foreign visitor. According to central bank data for 2012, they accounted for 9.4 percent of all receipts, much higher than their 5.6 percent share in arrivals.
Greece expects tourism to rebound strongly enough to offset the impact of the Cypriot crisis on the Greek economy. The tourism industry employs one in five people in a country where unemployment has climbed to 27 percent and the economy is in recession for a sixth consecutive year.
Domestic tourism, which has been severely hit as austerity-hit Greeks are cutting down on expenses, was expected to remain at last year's depressed levels.
"We won't see an increase but there will be no further drop either," he said.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt.