A bitter debate has reopened in crisis-hit Greece about the cost of violent demonstrations on the country’s battered capital and the risks they pose to the nation’s critically important tourism industry.
A senior tourism official has expressed amazement that the police generally fail to stop vandals from routinely ransacking the facades of luxury hotels on central Syntagma Square, the culmination point of all protests in Athens.
And the mayor of Athens, George Kaminis, is also aghast at the “terrible damage” regularly wrought on the city centre.
“The incidents cause terrible damage to Athens, and anger and outrage to its citizens,” Kaminis told a city council meeting, his office said Friday.
“This violence has various colourings — the coexistence of organised crime and political violence,” Kaminis said.
Andreas Andreadis, head of the association of travel agents (Sete), also lambasted the authorities for allowing “incalculable” damage on tourism facilities.
“How can the hooded vandals who every so often cause incalculable damage to Athens hotels evade arrest,” he told a tourism conference on Thursday.
At the latest demonstration on Tuesday; not directly linked to the unpopular austerity sweeping Greece — masked protestors used hammers to smash the marble steps of the luxury Grande Bretagne hotel, and threw the masonry at riot police.
The hotel has had to replace its marble outfittings six times this year due to demonstrations.
Stung by parliamentary criticism over the issue, police minister Christos Papoutsis retorted Thursday: “I’d rather have broken marble than a broken head.”
Police note that the sheer multitude of protests can be overwhelming.
“There were 1,350 protests in Greece this year, that’s more than the entire European Union combined,” said police spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis.
“And you can’t always charge a crowd of 3,000 people to stop 10-20 troublemakers,” he told AFP.
At a time of such strains on the economy — which remains stuck in a deep recession tourism is very important, accounting currently for around 15 percent of activity.
The city’s Evea chamber of commerce in October gave an early estimate of 400,000 euros ($534,000) to cover damage and looting during clashes that marked a two-day general strike and massive anti-austerity demonstrations.
Violence during another two-day strike in June had caused the city of Athens another 800,000 euros in burnt-down and smashed garbage bins, benches and other street outfittings.
Kokkalakis admitted that Athens businessmen and hoteliers have a “huge problem” and are “quite justified” to complain.
There is growing anger in Greece at an austerity recipe dictated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in return for bailout loans, which has plunged the country in a deep recession compounded by a steady wave of tax hikes and pay cuts.
But the police spokesman insisted on Friday that the violence at protests was more linked to football-style hooliganism than an expression of real social unrest.
“The arrests, at least 1,300 in the last 20 months, show that these are mostly kids with no regard for tomorrow…on the weekends they engage in sports-related violence and on weekdays they smash property in Athens,” he said.
Among the 21 protesters arrested following Tuesday’s demonstration — which was held in the memory of a schoolboy shot dead by police three years ago — nearly half were under 17 years old, the police said.
The youth riots in 2008 that followed the death of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos constituted the worst violence seen in the capital in 50 years and spread to other major Greek cities.
Despite the negative backdrop, recent tourism figures have been encouraging — Greece welcomed some 14.2 million visitors, up 10.4 percent, in the nine months to September this year.
The mayor seeks to revive calls for a closer regulation of street protests, which in the past have foundered on the opposition of rights groups.
“Mass demonstrations are not the problem — in fact they are to be expected during this unprecedented social crisis,” Kaminis said. “(But) I hope we can all agree that 50-100 persons cannot be allowed to paralyse the Athens centre for hours,” he said.