Debt crisis strikes Greek monuments, irks tourists

Tue Dec 6, 2011 8:32am EST
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By Gareth Jones

ATHENS (Reuters) - At the end of a sunny day on the Acropolis last month, Svein Davoy gazed awe-struck at the columns of the Parthenon gleaming in the twilight.

"It's marvelous. This is where Western civilization began. I will certainly tell my friends to come to Greece and see all this," enthused Davoy, 63, an economist from Norway.

Davoy was luckier than he realized. The union representing security guards at museums and archaeological sites very nearly shut down all Greece's monuments in November in a dispute with the culture and tourism ministry over overtime pay.

Greece's debt crisis has badly hurt tourism -- forcing visitors to clamber over fences to see closed monuments or curtail trips to avoid strikes and unrest, endangering new cultural initiatives and even raising concerns about the security around some of the country's most precious archaeological sites.

Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Yeroulanos has said the government is doing its best to protect Greece's heritage.

But the ministry has had to axe 2,000 staff since the debt crisis broke in 2009, mostly people on temporary contracts, and this has taken its toll, especially on smaller museums, forcing some to shorten their opening hours, for example, he said.

"We have seen a 35 percent cut in our budget since 2009, forcing us to do more with much less... and to set new priorities," Yeroulanos told Reuters in an interview.

He said tourism is still expected to rise by 10 percent this year from 2010, adding "an extra one to 1.5 percent to our gross domestic product." The Arab Spring revolts have diverted some tourists from Egypt and Tunisia and more visitors are arriving from newer markets in Asia, Russia and Israel.   Continued...