Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Yeroulanos has said the government is doing its best to protect Greece’s heritage.
But the ministry has had to axe 2,000 staff since the debt crisis broke in 2009, mostly people on temporary contracts, and this has taken its toll, especially on smaller museums, forcing some to shorten their opening hours, for example, he said.
“We have seen a 35 per cent cut in our budget since 2009, forcing us to do more with much less… and to set new priorities,” Yeroulanos told Reuters in an interview.
He said tourism is still expected to rise by 10 per cent this year from 2010, adding “an extra one to 1.5 percent to our gross domestic product.” The Arab Spring revolts have diverted some tourists from Egypt and Tunisia and more visitors are arriving from newer markets in Asia, Russia and Israel.
Denied the option of devaluing its currency in tough times as a member of the euro zone, Greece remains relatively expensive compared with rivals such as Turkey, even after four years of wrenching recession.
With tourism accounting for a whopping 18 per cent of total GDP, it can ill afford the negative publicity that several years of frequent — and occasionally violent — mass protests and strikes have brought.
The National Archaeological Museum, one of the top attractions in Athens, had to operate with just 30 per cent of its staff during the busy summer months, said Yannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the security guards’ labour union.
Security is another concern, said Despina Koutsoumba, head of the Greek archaeologists’ association.
“Every six months the culture ministry announces to great fanfare that they have foiled another plot to smuggle ancient artefacts out of the country,” she said.
“But we know that for every one arrest they report there are 20 others that get away with it because of fewer security guards as well as shortages of police and port authority officials.”
Greece’s visual and performing arts — an increasingly important part of its tourism strategy before the crisis — has suffered even more than the archaeological sites and museums which account for 80 per cent of the culture ministry budget.
“There were efforts before the crisis to show Athens is not just about famous landmarks but is also a culturally vibrant modern city,” said Augustine Zenakos, co-founder of the Athens Biennale that promotes contemporary visual art and design.
“The Biennale was very much part of that effort… but that is all pretty much over now,” he said, adding that artists taking part in this year’s event were having to cover most of their own costs.
More strikes may loom for Greek museums and other cultural sites as the new national unity government of technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos prepares a fresh austerity drive that envisages cutting 30,000 more public sector workers.
“We understand that tourism is a priority… but we have to take action when they tell our members to work more without being compensated adequately,” said Mavrikopoulos.
Although smaller provincial sites have taken the brunt of the cutbacks, even showcase projects such as the two-year-old Acropolis Museum are feeling the chill.
“We planned to run our new museum only from the income we generated from our ticket sales, our shops and other facilities and for now that is the case,” said Professor Dimitris Pandermalis, rector of the museum.
“But it is not easy. In future we may need support from the state, at least to pay salaries… Yet at times of crisis like this, people need culture, museums, more than ever, to have a different dimension to everyday life.”