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Greeks And Tourists Living In Cash-Economy Limbo


What a difference a week makes. Last week, Greeks were defiant. They rejected an austerity plan in a vote aimed at Germany and the other Greek creditors. It was a cry of autonomy, but Europe's leaders refused to relent on the terms of Greece's debt. Reality set in with the very real prospect of economic ruin and departure from the eurozone. Last night, the Greek Parliament approved tax hikes and pension cuts aimed at turning the country's economy around. Now, EU leaders in Brussels will decide if the measures go far enough to qualify Greece for a third bailout. Meanwhile, Greek banks have been closed for two weeks at the height of a tourist season. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports that Greeks and foreign tourists are living in a bizarre cash-economy limbo.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Greece is a strange place to be right now. It's a country on the brink of financial collapse, yet its streets are crawling with tourists. But with Greek banks closed, foreign governments have been advising travelers to bring cash. On the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula, about 50 miles from Athens, tourists visit Poseidon's temple on a promontory overlooking the deep blue Aegean Sea. Belgian Jan Van Oukland is here with his wife and two daughters.

JAN VAN OUKLAND: We brought some cash, of course, because everybody told us to do so.

BEARDSLEY: Though foreigners, unlike Greeks, are not limited in the cash they can withdraw from ATM machines, Van Oukland says he prefers not to use them.

VAN OUKLAND: Yeah, I don't think it's very pleasant to go and stand in line there also as a tourist because the Greek can only get 60 euros, and the tourists can get as much as they want, so that's not very sympathetic I think. But we're feeling very safe, and it's great here. And the Greek are extremely generous and friendly. And so everyone should come here.

BEARDSLEY: There's a feeling among tourists here that they're doing their part to help the country. Tourism is hugely important to the Greek economy, and the Greek tourist board is encouraging that spirit of solidarity in a campaign urging people not to cancel their trips. On the coast below Poseidon's white-columned temple, water laps around tables at a seaside taverna. Waiter Eugene Evyenos says his boss is accepting credit cards for now. But if banks remain closed and he can't soon redeem the cards for cash, there'll be trouble.

EUGENE EVYENOS: He has the cards, OK, perhaps maybe he has the money in the bank. But how will he pay me? And how can I go every day in the bank, still waiting there maybe two hours for 50 euro?

BEARDSLEY: The frozen credit cards and cash rationing has forced many Greeks to cancel their own holidays. In a small travel agency in Athens, owner Dmitris Siamos says Greek travel agencies are now locked out of the international airline ticket system.

DMITRIS SIAMOS: They stopped selling tickets in Greece, all the big airlines.

BEARDSLEY: So if I want to fly to New York, you cannot get me a ticket.

SIAMOS: No, only with Aegean Airlines. They don't trust the travel agencies because they don't know if they will be paid.

BEARDSLEY: Greek banks say they have enough cash to assure withdrawals only through Monday. Even if a deal is reached in Brussels this weekend, analysts say Greek banks will need 10 to 14 billion euros to keep them afloat until they can reopen probably by the end of next week.

At a crowded Athens restaurant, this table of Norwegian tourists is flush with cash. With banks closed, Greeks are stashing their cash at home. All that cash presents an attractive target for criminals, says Panos Dimas, a Greek-Norwegian in the group.

PANOS DIMAS: In the last two weeks before the referendum, it is assumed that about 4 billion euro came out of the banks. And these are, you know, all over Greece now, so this is good time for thieves. (Laughter).

BEARDSLEY: The group says the Norwegian government is warning its tourists to be careful in this vacation idyll, where things are actually getting quite desperate. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.