Wednesday, July 21, 2004

More than half of Olympic tickets unsold

By Lisa Orkin
The Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece - Tickets! Tickets! Get your Olympic tickets!

The Athens Games were supposed to make this ancient land a top tourist destination. But with just three weeks left before the opening ceremonies, the figures are hardly encouraging.

More than half the tickets for the games remain unsold, tour operators are reporting sluggish bookings and up to 6,000 of Athens' 62,000 hotel rooms are still up for grabs despite earlier fears of a serious accommodation shortage.

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In fact, fewer tourists are expected in Greece this summer compared to last year.

"Generally, it looks like this year we will have less people," George Drakopoulos, head of the Association of Greek Tourist Enterprises, told The Associated Press. He said some parts of Greece have seen a 10 to 15 percent drop in bookings.

Tourism is a vital industry in Greece, where island vacations at beach resorts and visits to archaeological monuments bring in 18 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Last year, Greece attracted about 12 million visitors, 85 percent of them from Britain and Germany.

Olympic construction delays and the threat of terrorism have hurt bookings. Evidently, many tourists are not comforted by the record $1.2 billion being spent on protecting the Aug. 13-29 games.

"Athens is as safe a place as it can be," said Harry Coccossis, head of Greece's National Tourism Organization.

A weak international economy and a strong euro - the currency Greece shares with 11 other European Union countries - have also lowered travel interest.

Aliki Hamosfakidou, who works for Athens-based Dolphin Travel, said the response from potential tourists has been lukewarm.

Don Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for Cartan Tours in Manhattan Beach, Calif., said his company decided to allocate fewer tickets for Athens than it did four years ago for the Sydney games.

"We anticipated Athens would be lighter," Williams said. "The venues are smaller, the dollar's weaker and some people have security concerns.

"The ticket prices are 30 percent lower than at Sydney," he added. "But the accommodations are more expensive in Greece, and they haven't really backed down."

Many tour operators feel the Olympics were not publicized enough and that Greece as a whole should have been promoted as part of the package.

The new conservative government blames the former socialist administration for delays and lack of international enthusiasm.

"The bad thing is that campaign for the Olympic Games was not connected with the campaign for tourism," Coccossis said.

Optimists insist a turn around is still possible, noting that Sydney was well below its ticket targets a month before the 2000 Olympics and that Athens, at last, is an attractive capital.

Improvements include a spruced-up city center, hundreds of volunteers to help tourists get around, multilingual information centers, and extended hours for archaeological sites and stores. Even Athens' notoriously surly taxi drivers have received etiquette lessons.

Greeks' spirits have soared since the country pulled off a major surprise to win the European soccer championship this month.

A weekend opinion poll found 60.2 percent of all Greeks were "interested" in attending an Olympic event, with 21.3 percent saying they will buy a ticket before the start of the games, compared to 15.9 percent in a May survey. No margin or error was provided.

Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyianni sees the Olympic glass as half full.

"The construction projects that tired everybody so much are finishing," she said Tuesday.

"There is a great feeling of satisfaction when all the dust lifts, and you can see all the new sidewalks, roads and the colors of the building facades ... At last, we're done."

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