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By Angeliki Koutantou
ATHENS, Oct 3 (Reuters) - China's biggest shipping company wants to more than double the number of cruise passengers using Greece's biggest port by extending facilities for bigger ships, its chairman said on Monday.
COSCO Shipping, which owns the world's fourth-largest container shipping fleet, bought 51 percent of the port's operating company for 280 million euros ($315 million) this year, one of Greece's biggest and most strategic privatisations since a debt crisis began in 2009.
Tourism has long been Greece's main cash earner, accounting for about 17 percent of its 185 billion euro economic output and employing one in five people.
"The movement of cruise passengers is around 1.1 million a year at present," COSCO Shipping chairman Xu Lirong said during a ceremony at Piraeus launching new docking space for cruise ships.
"Our short term goal is to increase it up to 1.5 million, and 3 million in the longer term."
Xu said Pireaus would be extended for new docking space for next generation cruise ships, which would be bigger and 'more luxurious'.
"The quality of services will be upgraded, and there is plenty of potential for future growth in this sector," he said through an interpreter.
Tourism body SETE sees tourism revenues rising 1 to 2 percent to about 15 billion euros this year, anticipating 27.5 million visitors including cruise passengers.
Cruise shipping attracted some 5 million passengers last year, accounting for about 12 percent of Piraeus Port's revenues of 100 million euros.
Under the privatisation deal with Greece, COSCO must conclude investments of about 300 million euros in five years before buying an additional 16 percent stake in the port.
COSCO has said additional investment would be used mainly to upgrade ship repair, logistics and cruise operations.
COSCO has been managing two of the port's cargo piers through its Greek unit, PCT, since 2009, when the debt crisis shut out the nation from debt markets and scared investors away.
The shipping group has spent millions of euros to upgrade port facilities and annual throughput has more than tripled to 3.3 million TEUs last year from 880,000 TEUs in 2010. It is projected to reach 3.7 million this year. (Editing by Ruth Pitchford)