An outsider’s update on the Greek economy

I’ve been going to Greece every two to three years since 2001. I was in Greece in the European summer of 2004 when the city of Athens dazzled like a block of white marble in the sun. I was also there in 2013 and 2015 when I was shocked by the number of unemployed people, shops, factories and businesses closed, and people generally doing it tough. I’ve written about my observations of how Greece and Greek people were faring in the global financial crisis in both 2013 and 2015. On my return to Greece in October this year, I was eager to see what state I would find the country and its people in.

As the title of this post points out, I am keenly aware that I can only offer an outsider’s view. But, because I visit only every couple of years, I notice those changes that for locals have occurred so painfully slowly that they are missed. It’s like how you notice how much a child has grown if you don’t see them for two years, whereas those closest to the child, who see them every day, don’t realise how much the child has grown from year to year.

Things between 2013 and 2015 had quite visibly declined. There were more people out of jobs, more shops closed, and more homeless people in the streets. Back in 2013 the economic crisis was all people talked about. It was everywhere. Four years later nobody talks about it. Partially that’s due to crisis fatigue, but mostly it seems to me that people have accepted the severe changes that the GFC, and specifically Greece’s economic situation, has wrought on their lives. By ‘accepted’ I mean in the way that you go through all stages of grieving and eventually ‘accept’ the death of a loved one.

Of course, when prompted, people do talk about it. And being Greek everyone has a pretty strong opinion. I asked family and friends about how they saw the economy now and its impact on their life. Nearly everyone told me things had gotten worse since I’d last visited.

But that wasn’t what I saw.

I saw that there weren’t more shops closed this time – neither in the main retail centres of Thessaloniki and Athens, nor in the neighbourhood shopping strips I visited. If anything, there was an ever so slight increase in shops open for business. Just one or two extra shops open in each strip or high street.

I even personally came across a small commercial success story. One of the newest shops in Athens Airport is Anamnesia, an absolutely delightful gift and souvenir shop. They sell practical and fun gifts that centre thematically on typical elements of Greek life, traditions and mythology. Their designs are modern and full of good humour. Everything they sell is not only designed in Greece, it’s made in Greece.

After the success of their first store on the Greek island of Zakinthos, which opened in June last year, they expanded the business and now have another shop on the island of Mykonos, as well as a shop in the Plaka district of Athens and the Athens Airport shop which is open 24 hours a day. So this is a business created just over a year ago that has grown, employing not only more retail staff, but more staff in the manufacturing of their products.

Anamnesia Athens Airport

The Anamnesia store at Athens Airport

And that was another thing I noticed. I heard a few stories about people getting some work after being unemployed for over two or three years, or changing jobs to improve their situation. I’m not saying they were getting their ideal job or that they had many options, but two years ago you didn’t hear about people finding employment at all.

I also noticed a bit more advertising in public spaces, like on the subway in Athens. Okay, sure, there weren’t ads plastered everywhere as there had been in the 2000s, but neither was every space and every billboard bare, as they were in 2013 and 2015. More spending on advertising means retailers are regaining confidence that people will spend. Another small sign of positive change.

All this anecdotal evidence is supported statistically by Greece’s current unemployment and youth unemployment rates, both of which are at six-year lows (about 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively). Which is not to say that they’re not still high, but relative to the worst years of the crisis (when, for example, youth unemployment was at 60 per cent), things are ever so slightly on the up. Growth in GDP is also trending upwards and the forecast is that it will continue to grow. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Tourism is a big part of Greece’s economy and the indicators there are also positive. Both tourism revenue and arrivals are increasing. Greece is in the top 10 countries in the world for tourism arrivals and in the top 20 for tourism revenue. More tourists spending more money is good for the Greek economy. It certainly explains why a shop like Anamnesia, that offers high quality, original products, is flourishing.

This is not to say that everything is rosy in Greece. One of the reasons that people still feel angry and frustrated is because the austerity measures that have directly impacted on them – the increase in taxes and the reduction in superannuation, pension and welfare payments – is not translating yet into visible benefits for the country. Usually these things go towards things like public hospitals, roads, schools, etc. That’s not happening in Greece. Yet. But it will come eventually.

I spent a month in Greece and didn’t see or hear anything that made me pessimistic about its future. At first I thought things had simply plateaued, but by the end of the month I felt optimistic that things were starting to turn towards the better for Greece. Even if they’re just baby steps, they’re still steps forward. And to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, all these small steps for individual Greek people will eventually add up to one giant leap for their country.

 

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A First Hand Look at Economies in Crisis – part 2

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I travel to Europe about every three years and was last in Greece in September 2010. At the time the economic crisis was just starting to affect people’s day-to-day lives as the first round of cuts had just been made … Continue reading

A First Hand Look at Economies in Crisis – part 1

I live in Australia. Specifically, I live in Melbourne. With a few exceptions, it’s a long way away from anywhere else in the world. You realise this if you travel internationally not only from the hours you put in on a plane to reach Europe, say, or the Americas, but also from people’s reactions when you tell them where you’re from. “You came here from Australia?” they ask, “Oooh that’s such a long way away!”

Despite the immediacy of the media that we use every day, despite the fact that we can read about on Twitter or watch on the news events from the other side of the world as they are happening, these events still have a ‘far away over there’ quality when you’re observing them from Australia.

I obviously knew about the European economic crisis before heading over to Europe last month; I’d seen many reports on the news and read many, many newspaper articles over the last three years.

I was in Spain for a week before heading to Greece and while I was mostly sheltered from the effects of the crisis in Spain by the nature of my trip (I was staying in a resort and going on organised tours), there were still signs of the economic downturn.

Annabel, one of our tour guides, was talking about the traditional means of employment in Andalusia and added as a postscript that, of course, due to the crisis, current rates of unemployment were very high. She casually mentioned that her husband had been out of work for a year and a half and they weren’t expecting he would find work for another two years or so, so they were surviving on her part-time guide wage.

We drove through Malaga several times and I saw a number of shops closed and holiday houses and apartments for sale, though I was unsure whether this was normal for the winter season or a result of the crisis.

When I was leaving Barcelona, I spent half an hour talking to Oscar, my cabbie, as we fought our way through peak hour traffic to the airport. He had finished law but, unable to get a job as a lawyer, drives a taxi during the day. His older brother drives the night shift, he told me, having lost his job two years ago as a senior industrial engineer and having failed to secure another job despite attending over 200 interviews. Oscar’s wife also drives a taxi.

I’d noticed the empty billboards along the highways, but Oscar also pointed out that there were far fewer trucks on the roads, and that the new cars were stacking up in yards, unable to be sold.

Oscar spoke of the “lost generation” of youth, those who make up the 55 per cent unemployment statistic for 18 to 25 year olds, who may not work until they are in their mid to late 30’s, given how long the crisis may go on for.

“No superannuation, no mortgage… no self-esteem, no purpose. We will feel the real pain of the crisis in the future,” he told me. He mentioned his one year old baby and said that hopefully, by the time his child is 16, Spain’s economy would be healthy again.

As we approached the airport, Oscar asked me which airline I was flying with so he could drop me off at the correct terminal. When I mentioned I was flying Aegean Air and going to Greece he turned to me and said, “Aah. It’s much worse there. Spain is bad, but Greece is very bad.”