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Tourist Traps

The coach driver on Naxos spoke good English, and was very eloquent about the problems facing the Greek economy. His take on it was that the islands have coped much better with “austerity” over the past few years than the mainland. He reckoned that was partly because the islands’ economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and so far at least the tourists have kept coming and spending freely. Also, there’s still a fair amount of agriculture on most of the islands, so everyone seems to have a cousin who is a farmer – which means the supply chain from grower to consumer is short, and if necessary the family will rally round with food supplies. In the big cities, in contrast, tourism is a much smaller part of the economy, and the link to the land has been lost. So with heavy industry and the state sector both collapsing, there’s been real hardship.

Bearing that in mind, I expected to find a highly practised process for separating me from my money. But that wasn’t really the case at all. Yes, Mykonos in particular was horribly touristy. However, all the shops seemed to sell either cheap and nasty souvenirs, or very expensive high-end jewellery – the latter no doubt aimed at the floozies on the very high-end super-yachts in the harbour. There was very little to buy in the middle. So I bought two postcards and that was it.

What I found particularly surprising was the virtual lack of “retail opportunities” at any of the many temples and museums we visited. On Naxos, one of the marble quarries housing some unfinished statues had a little snack-bar operated by the farmer’s wife – an example of local low-level entrepreneurship. She manged to sell our party several jars of local honey and preserved fruits, not to mention freshly-squeezed fruit juices to quench our thirst. But that was the only example I saw. None of the museums had a bookshop or museum shop, and only one of them even had postcards for sale – and even that was just a postcard of one single object in the museum!

Delos is a superb open-air museum, and that did have a gift shop by the ferry terminal, stocked full of reproduction pieces, guide books, postcards etc. But it was closed due to lack of staff, and the ferryman said it had been closed for the last month and would remain closed for at least the next six weeks. And that was before the EU turned off the taps – I imagine the re-opening will have been put back indefinitely now. It seemed such a wasted opportunity – I’m sure that every single one of our party, me included, would have bought at least a guide book and some postcards, and several of the party were deeply disappointed that they couldn’t buy some of the bigger offerings too. I’m sure that, with a bit of effort, the takings from the shop could easily have covered the staff costs and overheads.

I noticed much the same thing when I was in the north of Greece eighteen months ago. I really think that the Greek government, along side dealing with all its other problems, should take some advice and guidance from the heritage sector in the UK. We’ve perhaps gone too far in the other direction, and too often it seems as if you go to visit a rather nice cafĂ© and gift shop with a stately home attached! English Heritage and the National Trust are certainly both well practised in the art of separating heritage site visitors from their money – a bit of that mentality is sorely needed in Greece.