Shipwreck diving to help boost Greek tourism


ATHENS — Greece aims to exploit untapped tourism revenue by allowing diving for post-19th century shipwrecks in the near future, Tourism Minister Harry Theocharis said Monday as his country is already enjoying growth in the key sector.

In an interview with AFP, Theocharis said tourists would over the next few years be allowed to explore wrecks that were off limits before.

The minister announced the plans as the government forecast an increase of 10 percent in visitor revenues this year. Shipwreck tourism is not part of the 2020 revenue estimate.

"We will liberalize the creation of diving parks. We will allow diving in shipwrecks over 50 years old, which are currently not allowed," Harry Theocharis told AFP in an interview.

A bill would be introduced "within a month" to open shipwrecks "after 1860" and until 1970 to divers, he said.

No details were given Monday, but the Greek seabed holds a large number of shipwrecks from World War I and World War II, including the Britannic, fleet mate of the Titanic, a British hospital ship sunk in 1916 near the island of Kea.

As Greece slowly emerges from a decade-long financial crisis it relies heavily on tourism to boost economic growth and accelerate job creation.

The sector accounts for about a quarter of the country's gross domestic product and employs around 20 percent of the total workforce.

The ministry earlier Monday said tourism revenues in 2019 grew by 12 percent at 18.1 billion euros ($20 billion) from about 16 billion in 2018.

It expects arrivals will increase by five percent in 2020 from last year when they were 31 million, up 3.6 percent from the previous year.

Greece currently draws over three times more tourists than its 10.8 million residents, but Athens still has "a lot of untapped potential," the minister said Monday.

Shortly after the government took power in July the sector suffered a blow with the collapse of British travel giant Thomas Cook, which left thousands of tourists stranded on the Greek islands.

Theocharis said there was an immediate impact of over 120 million euros in unpaid invoices to Greek operators, and another 500 million euros in lost contracts.

Over 3,000 employees in Greece were also affected, losing seasonal jobs a month early, the minister said.

"Given the issues that arose during the year, it's obvious that we are relieved" by the 2019 results, he said, adding that negotiations with airlines and other operators had "effectively covered all 1.6 million airline seats" lost.

Theocharis acknowledges "strain in the infrastructure" of some successful island destinations, but insists Greece is "nowhere near the kind of (congestion) issues other destinations are currently facing."

For top island destinations such as Santorini, he says officials are "working to establish a berth allocation system which is more granular... to create incentives or disincentives to spread out (cruise ship) flows," he says.

Theocharis and other ministers travel to Paris on Tuesday in a business delegation headed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to attract investment to Greece.

The eight-billion-euro project involving residences, hotels, shopping centers and cultural venues, has been delayed for years, but the government is hopeful construction will begin this year.

Greece's gaming regulator last week selected US operator Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment for a new casino that is part of the complex, one of the steps needed to get the project moving.

"Some investors want to play it safer. For those, a big proportion of the investing community, they need to see it happening before they take the risk," Theocharis said.

"When we see the first bulldozers (at Hellinikon), it will be a significant milestone (showing) that we're open for business." — AFP