* German visitors avoid Greece this year
* Vital Greek tourism sector seen hurt badly
* Greeks say anger is at German leaders, not people
By Erik Kirschbaum
CORINTH, Greece, April 24 (Reuters) - German tourists are in short supply in Greece these days, frightened away by reports of visceral anti-German sentiment in some places, fears of being stranded by strikes and television images of fiery anti-austerity riots.
Who in their right mind, after all, would want to go on holiday to a place where they might be called a Nazi?
The dearth of Germans is especially noticeable in tourist hotspots like Corinth, an enchanting ancient town 80 km west of Athens famous for the steep and narrow walls of its 6-km (4-mile) long canal that cuts across the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
Because tourism accounts for a disproportionately large 15 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product (GDP) and Germans are the largest group of visitors, their absence is causing pain.
“The Germans aren’t coming here this year but there’s no reason for them to be afraid,” said Nicki Nastouli, who works at a tourist shop and restaurant near the rim of the Corinth Canal. “They’re not coming because of the problems. But we don’t have a problem with German people, only their government.”
And what a problem. Rioting protesters in Athens have taken to burning German flags and carrying around effigies of Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform. Greek newspaper cartoons depict Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble as concentration camp guards with Greeks held inside.
“No one in Greece likes Merkel,” said Yannis Kalyerakos, 51, an airport manager visiting the canal with his family. “Greeks have no problem with Germans - even though it’s their German government that is blaming the Greeks for everything wrong.”
A plunge in advance bookings from Germany may lead to overall tourism revenues falling 5 percent in 2012, said Greek Tourism Enterprises head Andreas Andreadis.
“It’s not just politicians fighting anymore,” he told Reuters. “It’s come down to the people of the countries, Germany and Greece. We need to restore relations between the two people and leave out any differences among bankers and politicians.”
Data for the main summer holiday season shows pre-bookings from Germany down by some 30 percent. In Berlin, a tour manager for a leading travel agency, said interest in Greece holidays was drying up.
“A lot of people are hesitant to go to Greece because there are reports Germans are being insulted and there’s a fear about possible strikes,” said the manager named Matthias. “Only diehard Greek fans are still booking there.”
Greeks complain that Merkel’s government - which demands harsh spending cuts as a price for debt bailouts - is strangling their economy, worsening a five-year-long meltdown that has left nearly a quarter of Greek workers jobless.
Emotions are running high ahead of a snap May 6 election, the first since the debt crisis erupted in 2009.
The country’s two main ruling parties are expected to haemorrhage support. Fringe parties that stand to sweep into parliament channel anti-German resentment.
“Today’s German leadership is trying to change the face of Europe,” said Panos Kammenos, the leader of a rebel right wing party known as “Independent Greeks” which has come out of nowhere to 11 percent in opinion polls.
“It tries to turn a Europe of independent states into a Europe dominated by Germany,” he told Reuters.
Most Greeks accept they need to make deep changes after decades of profligate state spending. But many believe German policymakers want to go further - to inflict punishment for their easygoing culture - even if it makes the crisis worse.
“Merkel and her government want to change the way of life for Greeks,” said Marina Metsopoulos, 43, a waitress at a not-so-busy Corinth cafe. “We have a different lifestyle. Now they want to impose theirs on us. They want to degrade the Greek lifestyle. This is an ‘economic war’ by Germany against Greece.”
Metsopoulos, who grew up in Canada before returning to Greece, said the crisis had revived anti-German sentiment from World War Two that most thought had long since disappeared.
Greeks suffered atrocities at the hands of the Nazis and their fascist allies during the war. In Athens alone, 300,000 civilians died of starvation during an occupation that lasted over three years. Generations on, it had become a subject that Greeks no longer dwelled on, but it comes up a lot more now.
“The Greeks moved on and tried to forget,” Metsopoulos said. “Then this. If you ask me, Germany owes Greece billions for all the murders and war crimes. Germany should pay Greece what it owes.”
Michelle Lavender, a 56-year-old British woman who has lived in Greece for 11 years, said she can understand the exasperation against Germany following years of finger-wagging and tough talk from German politicians, especially their second tier leaders.
“There is such a loathing of the German government because of the way they’ve picked on Greece as if Greece is the sole reason for the euro zone’s problems,” she said. “Greece is being treated like the scapegoat for everything that’s gone wrong.”
But lashing out in public about Germans only brings more hardship on Greeks. Tourism employs about a fifth of Greece’s 4 million-strong workforce, and Germans account for about 14 percent of visitors each year, more than any other nation.
Germans who have come to Greece anyway, say that Greece is as hospitable as ever.
“We’re having a great time and the Greeks are incredibly friendly,” said Christine Peters, a 30-year-old mechanic from Munich in Greece with her husband.
But she wasn’t surprised that many of her countrymen are staying away. “That’s just the way Germans are: if there’s trouble in some country, then Germans just don’t go there on their holidays.” (Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou and Harry Papachristou; Editing by Peter Graff)