Greece lures US tourist dollars `home'

Beckoning Americans to ``come back home to Greece,'' the Greek national tourist organization is trying to lure back travelers scared off last summer by terrorists and radioactivity. American travelers are the target of a ``repatriation'' campaign because they outspend European tourists by more than 3 to 1 and can make or break the tourist season for Greece. Vacationers are the economy's No. 1 source of foreign revenue.

But even with the advertising drive, travel operators here still harbor doubts that the 1987 season will live up to the advance publicity.

``Last year was not simply bad, it was catastrophic,'' says Dinos Arvinitis, president of the Hellenic Association of Travel and Tour Agents. Only 206,000 Americans overcame fears of hijackings and the Chernobyl accident to visit Greece in 1986, compared with more than 400,000 in 1985, and 650,000 in the peak year of 1981.

While Mr. Arvinitis expects improvement this summer from a year ago, a return to 1981, or even 1985, levels is doubtful. He says that Greece is ``still feeling the backlash'' by American tourists to the advisory against travel here issued by President Reagan after the hijacking of a TWA jetliner from Athens in 1985.

``Our image is certainly better than last year,'' he says, ``but we get the impression the American public is still unsure'' of safety in Greece. If Arvinitis is correct, that feeling of insecurity is persisting even though numerous United States and European agencies say the Athens airport is now one of Europe's most secure.

Despite public reassurances and intense advertising, the early part of the 1987 season has already been written off here. A $2 million ad campaign was only launched in March in a strategy designed to boost late-summer bookings for luxury hotels and cruise lines, which were particularly hard hit by the absence of spendthrift Americans. One cruise line reported a plunge in US customers from a previous high of 80,000 to 8,000 in 1986 - managing to fill bunks only by offering huge discounts to Greeks.

The recovery of Greek tourism appears to be more sluggish than that of other European countries, where the pent-up itch to travel from last year is expected to overcome the fall in the dollar on foreign-exchange markets. One Athenian travel agent says Americans are opting for ``the Reagan-Thatcher `let's be friends' idea'' and have been opting to travel to Britain rather than to Greece.

The irony is that, should US tourists stop short of Greece and stay in northwest Europe, they could be missing a bargain. The dollar-drachma exchange rate is roughly the same as it was a year ago, while the dollar lost 20 percent of its value against most other European currencies.

Although the Greek inflation rate of 17 percent is more than 10 points above that of other European Community countries, the shrewd traveler can shave a few points off that gap by mastering the fine art of haggling, tourism officials say.

Despite the early-season forebodings, there are some signs that the two-month-old advertising blitz is beginning to pay off. Travel agents here report an acceleration in US inquiries for later this year and for 1988. Three of the major airlines with US-Athens routes also have expanded their service from last year. TWA, for one, has resumed its five weekly flights from New York after suspending service last summer for lack of customers.

Another positive sign, too, is the shift in composition of US tourists. Arvinitis says last year saw stretches when 90 percent of American travelers here were on business trips. Yet bookings for later this summer show the figure dropping to 30 percent, with vacationers (a third of them Greek-Americans) making up the bulk.

The US government also appears to be plugging travel to Greece, perhaps sensitive to the damage inflicted by the 1985 travel advisory.

In March, at a meeting here of the American Society of Travel Agents, US Ambassador Robert Keeley and US Assistant Secretary of Commerce Harold Goldfield sang the praises of vacationing in Greece. In late April, after a bus carrying airmen from a local US base was bombed, the State Department said another advisory wasn't merited.

The ``come back to Greece'' theme took another political twist last month when Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou accepted in principle a proposal to open public lands on Aegean islands to Greek-American ownership.

Possession of ``strategic lands'' by non-Greek citizens has been prohibited. The government's key concept now is to boost tourism and economic development in the Aegean islands so as to compete with the successful tourist industry on Turkey's Aegean coast.

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