UPDATE 1-Tourism boom drives Greece to first current account surplus on record

Wed Feb 19, 2014 5:00am EST

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* Surplus hits 1.24 bln eur in 2013; first since records began in 1948

* Tourism receipts rise to record, imports slump to multi-year low

* Debt relief also a factor in surplus

* Figure doesn't mean Greece's economy now competitive -economists

By George Georgiopoulos and Harry Papachristou

ATHENS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Record spending by foreigners as Greece's tourism industry slashed prices helped the country's current account post its first surplus last year since official data began in 1948, central bank figures showed on Wednesday.

Current account deficits have been a drag on the Greek economy for decades, offset with borrowing and capital investment from abroad.

The payments gap swelled to 15 percent of national output in 2008 after the country entered the euro zone, fed by a debt-fuelled economic boom that led to a consumption frenzy on foreign imports.

But the ensuing debt crisis in 2009 plunged the country into an economic depression that shrank its economy by almost a quarter, helping Athens correct the imbalance and leading to a current account surplus of 1.24 billion euros last year, or about 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Tourism receipts, the country's biggest foreign-currency earner, rose 15 percent to a record 12 billion euros, while imports shrank.

Economists expect Greece to repeat a surplus this year but say this does not mean that it has turned the corner yet towards becoming an export-driven, competitive economy.

"For 2014 we expect the current account to stay in surplus as imports will remain weak alongside improving tourism and exports," said Eurobank economist Platon Monokroussos.

About half of the adjustment was due to cyclical factors such as shrinking imports of goods, which dropped 54 percent since 2008.

Just eight German Porsche luxury cars were sold in Greece in 2013, down from 424 in 2009.

Helped by falling wages which have restored some of Greek firms' lost competitiveness, exports of non-fuel goods rose 2.1 percent to 14.2 billion euros in 2013, putting them at about the same level as in 2008.

The current account was also helped by debt relief provided by Greece's lenders, which slashed interest payments by half to about 6 billion euros in 2013.

"Sustaining the surplus in the longer term will depend on whether the economy maintains its competitiveness and on its capacity to increase import substitution with domestic production," Monokroussos said.

"Wage growth must stay in line with productivity gains."

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