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Recreational diving in Greece’s ancient shipwrecks to help boost tourism

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A diver explores the ruins of an ancient shipwreck on the Aegean island of Alonissos, Greece. afp

Recreational diving in Greece’s ancient shipwrecks to help boost tourism

Greece aims to exploit untapped tourism revenue by allowing diving for post-19th century shipwrecks in the near future, Tourism Minister Harry Theocharis said Monday as his country is already enjoying growth in the key sector.

In an interview, Theocharis said tourists would over the next few years be allowed to explore wrecks that were off limits before.

The minister announced the plans as the government forecast an increase of 10 per cent in visitor revenues this year. Shipwreck tourism is not part of the 2020 revenue estimate.

“We will liberalise the creation of diving parks. We will allow diving in shipwrecks over 50 years old, which are currently not allowed,” Harry Theocharis said in an interview.

A bill would be introduced “within a month” to open shipwrecks “after 1860” and until 1970 to divers, he said.

No details were given Monday, but the Greek seabed holds a large number of shipwrecks from World War I and World War II, including the Britannic, fleet mate of the Titanic, a British hospital ship sunk in 1916 near the island of Kea.

As Greece slowly emerges from a decade-long financial crisis it relies heavily on tourism to boost economic growth and accelerate job creation.

The sector accounts for about a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product and employs around 20 per cent of the total workforce.

The ministry earlier Monday said tourism revenues in 2019 grew by 12 per cent at around $20 billion from about $18 billion in 2018.

It expects arrivals will increase by five per cent in 2020 from last year when they were 31 million, up 3.6 per cent from the previous year.

Greece currently draws over three times more tourists than its 10.8 million residents, but Athens still has “a lot of untapped potential,” the minister said Monday.

Shortly after the government took power in July the sector suffered a blow with the collapse of British travel giant Thomas Cook, which left thousands of tourists stranded on the Greek islands.

Theocharis said there was an immediate impact of over $132 million in unpaid invoices to Greek operators, and another 500 million euros in lost contracts.

Over 3,000 employees in Greece were also affected, losing seasonal jobs a month early, the minister said.

“Given the issues that arose during the year, it’s obvious that we are relieved” by the 2019 results, he said, adding that negotiations with airlines and other operators had “effectively covered all 1.6 million airline seats” lost.

Theocharis acknowledges “strain in the infrastructure” of some successful island destinations, but insists Greece is “nowhere near the kind of [congestion] issues other destinations are currently facing.”

For top island destinations such as Santorini, he says officials are “working to establish a berth allocation system which is more granular... to create incentives or disincentives to spread out [cruise ship] flows,” he says.

‘Play it safer’

Theocharis and other ministers travelled to Paris on Tuesday in a business delegation headed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to attract investment to Greece.

The eight-billion-euro project involving residences, hotels, shopping centres and cultural venues, has been delayed for years, but the government is hopeful construction will begin this year.

Greece’s gaming regulator last week selected US operator Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment for a new casino that is part of the complex, one of the steps needed to get the project moving.

“Some investors want to play it safer. For those, a big proportion of the investing community, they need to see it happening before they take the risk,” Theocharis said.

“When we see the first bulldozers [at Hellinikon], it will be a significant milestone [showing] that we’re open for business.”

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