What It's Like For A Tourist In Greece During Its Economic Crisis
When I planned my trip to Greece a few months ago, I pictured myself diving from a catamaran into deep blue waters, riding a donkey up a volcanic mountain and stuffing myself full of feta and baklava.
Basically, I was on my way to becoming Alexis Bledel from "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." I had no idea that five days after I arrived, Greece would vote "no" to the demands of their creditors, and I would be landing myself in the middle of the country's greatest economic crisis to date.
As I boarded my flight to Athens, my phone buzzed with notifications of banks being closed down and limits being set on ATM withdrawals.
As a tourist, I was supposedly not going to be affected by the capital controls and thus would be able to use my credit card and withdraw freely from the ATM, but I was still concerned.
As a precaution, I withdrew a sufficient amount of cash before I left and hoped for the best.
When I arrived in Mykonos five days before the vote, I was surprised to find that everything was functioning just as one would expect in a vacation paradise.
For the three days I was there, throngs of tourists moved in waves on and off of cruise ships anchored offshore, flooding gift shops and leaving with bags of local spices, cheesy t-shirts and travel-sized bottles of ouzo.
They swiped their credit cards left and right with no problem and dished crisp euros out of their fanny packs with ease.
I spent a day at a fabulous beach club, dined at incredible restaurants and did some shopping in the maze of white stores that make up the old port.
For a country in turmoil, everything seemed to be fine, well, more than fine. It was the paradise I had expected.
It didn't feel like I was amidst a financial crisis, but I knew by interacting only with tourists, I wasn't getting a complete picture.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of the situation, I decided to move away from the crowds and talk to the locals.
Katerina Noula, a server at Alley Bar in an area of Mykonos called Little Venice, didn't seem any more worried than the tourists.
"The Greeks always find a solution," she said with a confident smile. When I asked about her feelings toward the upcoming vote, she was strongly in favor of the "no," which would mean rejecting the terms of the bailout plan proposed by international creditors.
This result could consequently bring Greece one step closer to leaving the Eurozone and abandoning the Euro (the shared currency).
Her reasoning surprised me in that it wasn't based on economics, but instead on her feelings about the identity of her country.
"I believe that when the Euro came to Greece, Greece no longer belonged to the Greek people. It belonged to someone else," she explained.
Then, when I asked how she thought resorting back to the former Greek currency, the drachma, would affect the country, she hopefully replied, "It will be better for all the Greek people. Maybe not in two years or five years, but it will be better."
She also confirmed my thoughts about how the most popular tourist islands, such as Mykonos and Santorini, were a bit more sheltered from the crisis.
Because of this, she wasn't afraid. After talking to her, I felt even better about continuing to Santorini the next day.
The island of Santorini is smaller than Mykonos, and known less for its party scene and more for its laid-back beach life and stunning views from the caldera (basically the remnants of a volcano that erupted thousands of years ago).
As I sailed from island to island on a high speed ferry, I wondered if the crisis would show more on an island that wasn't known for its luxury beach clubs and world-renowned nightlife venues.
After arriving at my hotel and exploring the beach town of Perissa, I soon discovered that, like in Mykonos, the only traces of the crisis were the news reports that continued to be pushed to my cell phone. I was able to use my credit card without any problems, and ATMs were available for use with no limits.
Also, it was clear shop owners were quick to ease the worries of travelers, as I noticed a couple signs at cash registers informing customers their credit cards would still be accepted, despite the closing of Greek banks.
Even on the night of the referendum, everything was calm. Traditional music danced out of beachside restaurants decorated with replicas of famous statues and named after well-known gods.
Greeks and foreigners alike sat sipping wine and chatting over delicious seafood as if it were any other day.
All was well.
The morning after the vote was determined, I asked Vula Nomikos, whose family owns a charming hotel called Stelios Place in Santorini, what she thought the next few weeks would bring.
"Well, today everything is okay. We will see," she replied. Her sister Katherina had more to add about the decision. "I'm not sure if is bad for Greece. Greek currency will be good for tourists, but for us, if we go to the supermarkets or to buy petrol, it will be very expensive."
She also talked about how people were worried they would lose all of their savings and were eager to withdraw as much money as they could before the banks were depleted.
“That's why people are afraid," she said. But even with their concerns, both sisters were confident all would turn out well in the end.
So, while I can't predict with certainty what will unfold in the next couple of months, if my experience is an indicator of what tourism will look like in the future, it seems like you shouldn't have any problems if you're planning a trip to the Greek Islands.
I got to do everything I set out to and more, including riding a donkey. At no point did I feel unsafe or concerned about not being able to make purchases.
Greek people hold an unwavering confidence in their country, and their warm-hearted spirit of hope is contagious.
So, even if you find yourself amidst the crisis while there, I’m sure the attitudes of the locals will soothe any worries you have.
And if they don’t, pour yourself a glass of ouzo.