As Greece referendum looms, is the country safe for tourists?

Worried about traveling to Greece? The biggest setback tourists could face is a lack of hard cash. 

Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters
A group of tourists takes a selfie in front of the temple of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, July 2, 2015. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called on Greeks to vote 'no' in Sunday's referendum on a bailout package offered by creditors, in a defiant address that dispelled speculation he was rowing back on the plan under mounting pressure.

Even as Greece misses its deadline to pay international creditors and prepares a referendum that could toll the death knell for its membership in the single currency Eurozone, the country’s tourism industry is booming.

As is usual for the summer months, millions of European tourists are spending their holidays lounging on Greece’s pristine beaches and photographing the ruins of the birthplace of democracy.  Nevertheless, as the possibility of a Grexit (or Greek exit from the Eurozone) grows more probable, some tourists may be starting to wonder whether it's time to pack their bags and head home. 

Despite some sensational reports of panicked governments preparing to airlift their citizens out of the country, many experts say that holiday goers in Greece are unlikely to face any major setbacks.

"Considering the importance of tourism for the Greek economy… it is to be expected that the Greek government will do everything possible to make sure political instability in the country does not affect tourists," Angelo Rossini,  Euromonitor’s  International travel analyst, told NBC.

Instead, the biggest problem tourists might face is a lack of hard cash. As Greeks scramble to withdraw funds in preparation for Sunday’s referendum, some ATMS have been left devoid of currency.

Greeks are currently limited to withdrawing just 60 euros (around $74) a day from ATMs, and no restrictions apply to credit cards issued in foreign countries. Despite the restriction, as residents line up to withdraw, some tourists may be forced to join the queue only to find bank machines empty by the time they reach the front.

A spokeswoman for the National Bank of Greece told the Wall Street Journal that banks are trying to replenish cash at ATMs as quickly as possible, but fear of a shortage has made cash the preferred method of payment almost everywhere. Some local businesses have even started rejecting credit card payments altogether. 

“There are many rumors about capital controls [going into place] next week so I am asking clients for cash, as returns from credit cards won’t be readily available,” a souvenir-shop owner in the central Athens told the Journal.

Tourists have been advised to arrive in the country with as many small bills as possible. 

The US embassy has confirmed that it is still safe to travel to the country's tourist destinations, but it has prepared a calendar of planned demonstrations throughout the country and advised tourists to avoid them.

In the long run, however, some experts have pointed out that the current crisis could have the unintended consequence of boosting tourists’ purchasing power by driving down prices.

The US dollar is currently strong in Europe: as a result of the EU's lingering financial woes, the euro-dollar exchange rate fell from $1.36 in June 2014 to $1.12 now. And although a Grexit potentially could lead to temporary political unrest, tourism experts say that devaluation would make Greece a more attractive destination once stability returns.

For the moment, Greece’s government is attempting to assuage all fears.

"The tourists that are currently in Greece as well as those that are going to come will not be at the least affected by the latest developments and can continue to enjoy their vacations in Greece without the slightest problem," Alternate Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura said in a statement Wednesday. 

Last year, travel and tourism contributed around $32.7 billion to the Greek economy, or over 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the international travel industry forum the World Travel & Tourism Council.

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