June 19, 2015 / 3:32 PM / 4 years ago

Greek debt crisis a small chink in tourists' confidence

LONDON/MUNICH (Reuters) - An escalating debt crisis that may force Greece’s banks to shut next week has only slightly dented tourists’ appetite for island holidays in the country, with advance demand for package tours still robust, travel operators said this week.

Tourists climb on a rock near the Acropolis hill in Athens June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Paul Hanna

Europeans make up the lion’s share of visitors to Greece, with Britons and Germans accounting for 20 percent last year. German and Swiss tour operators on Friday reported rising bookings for Greek holidays, and British holiday companies said they had mostly seen no drop-off.

Noel Josephides, chairman of Britain’s Sunvil tour operator, said June bookings had slowed and added the operator had plans in place should tourists find themselves stranded without cash. But he added he did not expect to have to put them into action.

“Yes, at the moment, because of what’s in the press the last three or four days, the booking rates have slowed. But it’s not a big deal really,” he told Reuters.

“June is not selling well, but for July, August and September at the moment our bookings are better than they were last year.”

Britain’s Daily Express tabloid alerted readers on Wednesday: “British holidaymakers going to Greece warned cash machines could be SWITCHED OFF,” after travel groups advised tourists to pack some cash along with credit and debit cards, to be covered for all eventualities.

Josephides said Sunvil would send money to its local agents to give to its customers holidaying in Greece if ATMs ran out of money, as it did in Cyprus in 2013, and in the worst-case scenario it would fly staff out carrying cash.

“Whatever happens, this is not going to be an enormous ongoing problem,” he said. “As long as there is no physical risk to the client, we see absolutely no reason why people can’t go.”

Thomas Cook TCG.L, the world’s oldest tour operator brand, said even a Greek exit from the euro zone would have no direct impact on its customers because of its existing contacts with hotels and airlines.

“The likely devaluation of the Greek currency could make Greece an even more attractive, great value destination for our customers,” a spokeswoman said. “We have seen no drop-off in bookings so far as a consequence of a potential ‘Grexit’.”

GERMANS RETURN

Tourism accounts for about 18 percent of Greece’s economy, which has been crippled by austerity measures adopted as a condition for international loans.

Greece’s banking sector is being kept alive by emergency funding from the European Central Bank, which the ECB will review again on Monday as euro zone ministers and leaders meet in Brussels for last-ditch talks with Athens.

Germany has taken a particularly hard line in insisting that Athens step up austerity measures in exchange for continued financial support - a fact that for a while in 2012 put German tourists off visiting Greece for fear of anti-German sentiment.

But last year, the number of German visitors to Greece jumped 8 percent to 2.5 million, making them more numerous than visitors from any other country.

TUI Deutschland (TUIGn.DE), the German market leader for Greek holidays, said on Friday its bookings for Greece were currently on the same level as last year’s record high.

Markus Stumpe, head of TUI’s Mediterranean business, said: “Demand could have been even better if we did not have the Grexit debate.”

Writing by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Sophie Walker

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