BERLIN Tourism in Greece is bouncing back this year in an otherwise flat European market, held back by the weak economic climate, travel industry executives said.
The desire for a beach holiday closer to home for cost-conscious consumers in Europe is helping to revive tourism demand in the country, battling recession and a debt crisis.
Doerte Nordbeck from market research group GfK showed in a presentation at the ITB travel fair this week that bookings to Greece from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands for this summer were up 10 percent.
Tourism income for Greece, its chief money spinner, fell by 4.6 percent to 9.89 billion euros from January-November in 2012 according to the country's central bank.
Arrivals from Germany, Greece's biggest tourism market, dropped by almost a fifth, partly on fears about a backlash on German tourists caused by Berlin's tough austerity demands on Athens.
Alltours, Germany's No. 4 tour operator, said bookings for holidays in Greece were up 30 percent on the year by March 5, boding well for the country where tourism accounts for around one fifth of output and one in five jobs.
"The tourism industry in Greece has overcome the crisis of the last two years and is now back on top form," said Willi Verhuven, chief executive of German tour operator Alltours.
Verhuven said the company was in particular seeing a surge in bookings from repeat customers who had ditched Greece in favour of other resorts.
Europe's largest tour operator TUI Travel is also seeing a comeback for Greece, with bookings at the group's German unit up 4 percent. Bookings from the UK are performing strongly, a spokesman said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened the ITB fair this year, called on trade fair visitors to take holidays in ailing euro zone states like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy to help to create jobs.
"I also wish that European countries which are famous for tourism get good custom - I name Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy - all countries in which growth is really necessary at the moment and where we have to make an effort to finally get people back into work," she said.
Globally, the tourism industry - worth an estimated $1.15 trillion last year - is expected to grow by between 3 and 4 percent in 2013, driven by up to 6 percent higher visitor numbers in emerging markets, according to latest estimates from the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
It sees growth in Europe, the world's No. 1 tourist destination, slowing to 2 percent or holding steady at 3 percent as the region's debt and financial crisis rumbles on.
But Germany's federal tourist association BTW forecasts growth of just 1 to 2 percent this year due to the uncertain economic environment.
"If the weak economy begins to seriously affect the employment market and domestic demand then this will also impact on the tourism industry," group president Michael Frenzel said.
Germany's national tourist board also sounded a note of caution. "The European financial and debt crisis is still a long way from being overcome yet," said Klaus Laepple, president of the tourist board.
Emerging markets like China and Russia will continue to be the main driver of growth for international tourism, Rolf Freitag, head of tourism consultancy IPK, said.
Asia Pacific is seen recording the biggest increase in visitor numbers this year, with growth of between 5 and 6 percent, followed by Africa, where arrivals are expected to increase by between 4 and 6 percent, UNWTO said.
Last year, emerging market countries attracted 4.1 percent more tourists while their mature counterparts catered for 3.6 percent more travellers, according to UNTWO data.
(Editing by Jane Merriman)