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A waypoint for refugees, Lesbos braces for hardship as tourism declines

April 19, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
The island of Lesbos is one of the Aegean’s most idyllic locales, and long a destination for tourism in Greece. But local residents and businesses are bracing for potential economic catastrophe, as tens of thousands of vacationers are staying away because of the island’s new role as a landing zone for refugees. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on efforts to reinvigorate tourism.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Tourism businesses on the Greek island of Lesbos are asking for protection from bankruptcy as they face a potential economic catastrophe. Tens of thousands of vacationers normally expected on one of Greece’s more idyllic spots are staying away because of the island’s central role as a landing zone for refugees.

Now the islanders are appealing for what they call solidarity tourism.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Lesbos.

HELEN STEDMAN, British Bird Watcher: I have seen a cormorant. I have seen a Ruppell’s warbler. I have seen a subalpine warbler.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Every year, spring in Lesbos lures millions of migrating birds and British pensioner Helen Stedman. Unlike other tourists, troubled by images of suffering and misery, she and her keen bird-watching partner, Jeff Bailey, have remained faithful to an island they believe typifies unadulterated Greece.

HELEN STEDMAN: I feel sad for the islanders. The economy is suffering. And we have noticed that restaurants that we have favored before have closed. They’re not there anymore. They have gone bankrupt.

The people can’t — the locals can’t afford to pay wages. And they’re just not opening. Tourism is their biggest income in this island. And if we don’t come and support them, then they’re not going to survive,

MALCOLM BRABANT: Seasonal worker Nikos Paspalatelis is helping his former boss prepare the hotel for the summer. Married with two small children, Paspalatelis has worked here for almost 20 years, but he’s been laid off this summer, which means his state insurance won’t be paid, which means he won’t be entitled to unemployment benefit in the winter, when there’s no seasonal work.

NIKOS PASPALATELIS, Newly Unemployed: I’m not going to say that we’re angry, because angry is something you do if somebody make you very big damage to you. But this is — I hope this will be only for one year, this damage. Maybe if you ask me maybe in two or three years, if this situation continue, I would say, yes, I’m going to be hungry — angry — sorry.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This hotel was on the front line. The owners estimate more than 1,000 boats landed on the beach next to their taverna, most during the peak season. German water sports instructor Wolfgang Punke has come to say farewell and remove his gear.

WOLFGANG PUNKE, Coordinator, Frosch-Sportreisen: Oh, I have to pack up because, in Europe, on the television, you get almost every two, third or fourth day information about Lesbos, about the refugees. And you think Lesbos is full of refugees. And so the booking numbers are going down, up to zero.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Hotelier Dimitrios Vatis, whom we met at the start of the refugee crisis, shows us the difference between bookings for last year, which started so promisingly, and this.

DIMITRIOS VATIS, Afrodite Hotel: This year, the difference between the two of them is minus-88.28 percent.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This business, along with hundreds of others on Lesbos, could be in serious trouble. They face double the pressure, extra tax demands to help with Greece’s other crisis, its debt burden.

The hotelier is appealing to the government to protect vulnerable enterprises from bank foreclosures as they try to survive. But his prime concern is for loyal employees that he’s been forced to let go.

DIMITRIOS VATIS: In a little while, these people, they may end up asking jobs somewhere else, so they will be refugees. I feel badly, terribly when I’m talking about the rest of the people that they work in the hotel, and they’re not going to be able to have a job this summer.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Day trippers from Turkey who’ve taken the legal ferry to cross the Aegean climb one of Lesbos’ main attractions, the chapel in Petra, the rock.

But their custom in no way replaces of the 90,000 foreign visitors the island anticipated before the crisis. The islanders were being talked about as potential Nobel Peace Prize nominees for their generosity and hospitality.

The sense of rejection pains cafe owner Stelios Chiotellis, who is a stone’s throw from the chapel. Not only is his business being jeopardized by the tourists staying away, but also by foreign package holiday companies, which are trying to force the islanders to cut their prices still further.

STELIOS CHIOTELLIS, Kantina Snack Bar: All the locals here, they did the best they could to help the refugees last year. When they first came out, there wasn’t NGOs here. There was nothing. So we gave them food, drinks. Many people helped a lot, a lot. I wouldn’t say, me, I helped a lot, but we do our best.

And then, instead of people appreciate that and say like, oh, these people help, they turned their back to us now. Like, they canceled all the flights.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is Eressos, home to Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who wrote of romantic love between women. This village is one of the world’s leading lesbian destinations. Its location on the west of the island shielded it from the armada of rafts. Despite its prominence in a niche market, Eressos is also facing a bleak future.

Local tourist chief Fani Gallinou.

FANI GALLINOU, Eressos Tourism Association: We don’t how long we will be this season. We have guests that they want to come, but they don’t know how, or it is very expensive for them, because there are no anymore charter flights. We had 25 charter flights per week, and now we have only 10.

MALCOLM BRABANT: For a place that has had such a turbulent year and whose geographical position has guaranteed it prominence in 21st century history, Lesbos can be disarmingly tranquil.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Bird-watcher Jeff Bailey has great sympathy with the people escaping war, oppression and poverty, and has this message for holiday-makers worried about the migrant crisis.

JEFF BAILEY, British Pensioner: Well, I think the island is looking as wonderful as always. And I would urge anybody who has wanted to come to the island to please come to the island. There’s no issues with the migrants. The vast majority of the island, you won’t experience that, and so there’s no reason for you not to come.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Last summer, Lesbos was inundated, as the authorities failed to cope with the refugee crisis. But now the system is much more organized, as the European Union tries to get control of its external borders. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs, the reality is that the refugees and migrants are now being kept away from the main tourist areas.

The village of Molyvos, with its medieval citadel, has endured a torrid 12 months and witnessed significant tragedy. But the apocalyptic scenes in its cobbled streets have evaporated.

Although she has to work two jobs, 15 hours a day, seven days a week, restauranteur Ioanna Stipsanou takes a long historical view and is optimistic.

IOANNA STIPSANOU, Women’s Cooperative, Molyvos: It’s famous. Everybody knows Lesbos. And it know exactly also the good things we have. It’s the people, the hospitality, and how beautiful is the place and how beautiful the people are, and how secure and safe you are when you’re here with us.

MALCOLM BRABANT: While the islanders’ short-term plea is for tourists to return, their more substantive desire is for the world powers to bring peace to conflict zones, so that people no longer need to use these shores as a stepping stone.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.

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