As the first country to fall victim to the euro crisis, Greece has spent more than two and a half years in the global spotlight. Yet, I never cease to be amazed at the contrast between the Greece that I read about in foreign newspapers and the Greece that I've known since childhood -- the Greece in which I live today.
When I think of modern Greece, I think of remote mountain villages and secluded Aegean islets, pristine areas where the resplendent Greek way of life has remained untouched by the ages. These tranquil, patient and welcoming communities are found in every corner of our diverse country. Yet, they are seldom mentioned in conversation today, heavily obscured instead by a supranational crisis for which they bear no responsibility.
This is a pity for this is also a Greece of considerable wealth given that hospitality, or filoxenia (literally, "love of strangers"), is our nation's economic lifeblood. Tourism and tourism-related services employ nearly 1 million people, the vast majority of whom are in small businesses operating in such communities. All in all, the tourist sector contributes roughly one-fifth of the Greek GDP. Without a question, Greece's economic recovery can and will be driven by our hospitality industry, and there is much evidence that such a process is already underway.
Last year, tourism arrivals reached an all time high of 16.5 million visitors. While 2011 arrivals from primary tourist markets -- the U.K., Germany, the U.S. -- were all strong, the real story last year was the spectacular increase in visitors from non-traditional markets. Arrivals from Russia, for example, increased 63.8 percent in 2011 alone. The sharp rise in demand from new markets -- coupled with an increasing array of alternative and non-seasonal tourism products -- bodes extremely well for the development of Greece's tourism sector, and overall economic turnaround.
Yet, the common refrain at the moment is that Greece's hospitality industry is under threat. This claim is based on two harmful myths that are being recklessly batted around by the same media that once told you that the crisis was the result of the "lazy Greeks" (a claim thoroughly debunked by OECD data showing that, in 2008, Greeks worked on average 2,120 hours a year -- 690 hours more than the average German and 467 more than the average Brit).
The first myth is that so-called "political instability" will have a negative affect on tourism. According to this flawed logic, the fact that Greece is having a second round election on June 17, after inconclusive first round ballots (a straightforward and orderly process outlined in the constitution) is cause for concern. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is simply our democratic process in action, no different than any other country. True, the stakes of the coming election are unquestionably high. Yet, the birthplace of democracy is as safe, secure and calm as it has ever been.
The second myth is that Greece's financial uncertainty might lead to an exit from our shared euro currency, triggering financial chaos and disruptions for travelers. Such scenarios are based solely on rumor and speculation by financial and political interests. The fact is, all major Greek political parties have voiced their commitment to remaining in the euro. Beyond that, the Greek people are the strongest supporters for the common currency throughout the eurozone. Simply put, Greece will remain a member of the eurozone and this government has had no discussions regarding a possible euro exit. Any speculation otherwise is an affront to the efforts and sacrifices of the Greek people.
Unfortunately, these gloom-and-doom myths are what dominate the international commentary about Greece today. However, those who choose to dig a bit deeper will find an innovative, re-energized tourism sector, offering noticeably higher quality services at far more competitive prices. And of course, visitors will find the same jaw-dropping scenery, sumptuous cuisine, cultural treasures and vibrant nightlife that have always set Greece apart from the rest.
Most of all, the millions of tourists visiting Greece this year will have a unique opportunity to visit our timeless communities and learn the true meaning of filoxenia. For despite any difficulties we may face, Greece will always welcome its visitors with open arms -- today, more than ever.