2012-03-09

Greek sea tourism professionals look to neighbouring states for cheaper bases

The traditional yachting business in Greece takes a turn for the benefit of other regional maritime countries.

By H.K. Tzanis for SES Türkiye in Athens -- 09/03/12

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A mix of uncompetitive pricing, over-regulation and red tape, now repeated at almost every instance to dissect the Greek economy, is directly blamed for a dramatic slump in sea tourism, a segment of the economy viewed as crucial for coming out of the crisis. This trend is apparently benefitting Turkey the most, although Croatia and Montenegro have also recently attracted their fair share of yachts and motorboats.

  • Yachts are increasingly moving from Greece to neighbouring Turkey, Croatia and Montenegro in search of better tax breaks, easier regulations, and refuelling. [H.K.Tzanis/SES Türkiye]

    Yachts are increasingly moving from Greece to neighbouring Turkey, Croatia and Montenegro in search of better tax breaks, easier regulations, and refuelling. [H.K.Tzanis/SES Türkiye]

In terms of Greece, a policy of the previous socialist government in 2009 raised taxes and stepped up inspections of pleasure craft backfired, as official Hellenic Coast Guard figures showed that no less than 3,823 private vessels were declared "permanently moored" in 2011.

"Tax criteria [for owning a vessel] were abolished in 2002, but with their re-institution in 2009, the number of vessels went from 11,500 to 2,600 throughout Greece," said Ilias Perimenis, the president of the national fiberglass manufacturers, traders and service providers in the boating sector.

"These types of criteria are a Greek invention. Their 'reasoning' is only to collect revenue by the state; in practice, though, the state loses money as the manufacturing sector, for instance, which employs thousands of people, is being destroyed day by day," he said, adding that his group is waiting for the current interim Greek government to fulfil its promise to abolish the extra tax burden on owners and operators.

Turkey, however, appears to have lured a good many Greek-owned yachts, some of the sector's seasoned professionals and, of course, numerous foreign-owned vessels.

Entrepreneur Stavros Gavrias is equally pessimistic, confirming that many of Greece's sea tourism professionals are moving to neighbouring Turkey.

"There was one instance where tax inspectors boarded foreign-flagged vessels for checks, something that is very bothersome for the owners and crew. They [owners and operators] don't care where they'll take their vessels. They can work from anywhere, and many are travelling back and forth from Turkey," he said.

Gavrias, a contractor, also points to less-than-competitive rates as the biggest obstacle to jump-starting growth in the sector, and too much bureaucracy in constructing and operating high-end marinas.

"The most significant attraction is to have more, better and less expensive marinas in Greece. This means liberalising the sector for would-be investors. Turkey is more competitive in terms of prices, and correct services," he said, adding that the sector in Greece is desperately anticipating the draft law in making the building and operating of new marinas more attractive.

Beyond Turkey, he said operators of so-called "mega-yachts" are increasingly choosing Montenegro as their operations base.

The head of the influential Hellenic Professional Yacht Owners Association, Antonis Stelliatos, listed a number of professional vessels registered in Greece at no less than 3,150 and up to 3,500, all flying the Greek flag. Of these, he said, 800 are "cruisers" of varying shapes and sizes, accompanied by crews with five to eight people. The rest, he said, are sailing boats without crews.

He lamented the fact that only 19 full-service marinas exist in a "very safe country with more than 5,000 islands and isles, beautiful waters and millennia of history and culture practically under every rock".

According to the Association's figures, 28% of berthed vessels in Greece have fled for a regional country, primarily Turkey, but also Croatia and Montenegro.

"The criteria, which were voted in during a period of panic over the public debt, were excessively high, thus fuelling the downturn, reducing state revenues and increasing unemployment, while at the same time handing over the financial control of sea tourism in the Aegean to Turkey," General Secretary of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises, Giorgos Vernicos, said.

Away from the Aegean in the equally picturesque Adriatic, in terms of ever-important fuel costs, and contrary to recent media reports, Croatia is not becoming a new destination for yachts re-fuelling along the exquisite coast.

Andro Vlahusic, the mayor of the eponymous city of Dubrovnik, recently wrote to the leadership of INA, the biggest Croatian oil company, requesting that the company modernise its fuelling stations in the southern resorts to make them more attractive.

According to Juroslav Buljubasic, who sails a Seagull 2 old-timer yacht, the prices of fuel are the biggest problem for Croatia-based mariners.

"Yachts usually refuel either in Montenegro, Italy or further on, in Malta. The prices in Croatia are too high so people tend to refuel somewhere else. You have to pay a double price here than in Montenegro so I don't think that - if the prices are not dropped - we will become a place where the yachts will refuel in the summer," Buljubasic told SES Türkiye.

Current official data, however, show that more than 400 mega yachts sail into Croatian harbours every year.

Natasa Radic in Zagreb contributed to this report.

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