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Shipwreck diving to help boost Greek 2020 tourism: minister

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Athens (AFP)

Greece will exploit untapped tourist activities, including diving for post-19th century shipwrecks, to help meet the new conservative government's target of a 10-percent boost in visitor revenues this year, the tourism minister said Monday.

"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 told AFP in an interview.

A bill would be introduced "within a month" to open shipwrecks between 1860 and 1970 to divers, he said.

The authorities will also address overcrowding at some popular cruise ship destinations, he said.

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 percent of the total workforce.

The ministry earlier Monday said tourism revenues in 2019 grew by 12 percent at 18.1 billion euros ($20 billion) from about 16 billion in 2018.

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

- 'Untapped potential' -

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 governnment 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 120 million euros 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 that is more granular ... a cap per hour ... to create incentives or disincentives to spread out (cruise ship) flows," he says.

Theocharis and other ministers travel to Paris on Tuesday alongside Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for a business forum designed to attract investment to Greece.

The minister notes that for many investors, a key signal will be a long-awaited breakthrough in the redevelopment of the former Athens airport of Hellinikon into a massive park.

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.

"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," the minister 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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