Acropolis tourists and Piraeus development

A version of this article was originally published on the MERICS blog

You find two types of Chinese immigrant in Athens. The first type are found amid the fever-hot hustle and bustle of the Metaxourgeio “ghettos,” where young Bangladeshi boys hawk fake cigarettes on street corners and the gutters are always filled with yesterday’s rotten fruit and plastic detritus. These Chinese are from entrepreneurial, coastal cities like Wenzhou and Fuzhou. They started coming here in the 80s, leveraging connections back home to sell cheap clothes and luggage to the bargain hunters of Athens.

The other kind of Chinese immigrant in Athens comes from Xi’an, or Beijing, or Shanghai – anywhere where there’s money and the impetus to start a new life in Europe. These are well-to-do immigrants, the type of people we’d refer to as “expats” in polite conversation. This new wave of migration is more recent, dating back to 2013, when Greece rolled out a cash-for-residency scheme that enables foreigners to obtain a “Golden Visa” if they spend at least 250,000 Euros on property. So far, 12,666 people have come to Greece on a Golden Visa. 7,862 of them have been Chinese, compared to 1,113 for the second most populous group.

Chinese cash is also finding its way to the streets of Athens in the hands of Chinese tourists – though not enough of it according to Effi, a Greek tour guide who works at the Acropolis: “Most of them are not spending time, not spending money here,” she tells me, “they’re on all-inclusive packages and one or two might buy a tax-free Chanel bag, but that’s it.” The Chinese tourists I speak to seem happy and relaxed, but they are indeed on a tight schedule. Between 09:00 and 11:30, Chinese tour groups gather in the olive groves at the foot of the Acropolis. Here they consult maps, listen to talks from their Chinese guides, and then disperse. As one group moves on, another steps in to take its place, and around midday they all head to Fu Yun Long for a slap-up lunch of homestyle Chinese classics.

Yet the Greek tourist industry still looks longingly to the Chinese market for growth. In an effort to induce these Acropolis tourists to stay longer, the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) has come up with a “master plan” that involves converting a string of old warehouses into five-star hotels. They also hope to build a gigantic shopping mall and to expand the existing cruise terminal. The idea, according to PPA’s PR manager, Nektarios Demenopoulos, is to turn Piraeus into a “home port” for the cruise liners that ply the Mediterranean.

Of course, Piraeus is itself a beneficiary of Chinese cash. Pressured by the EU to privatise state assets following the Greek economic crisis, 67% of PPA was sold off to the Chinese shipping colossus, COSCO– a company that had been operating and investing in Piraeus as Piraeus Container Terminal SA (PCT) since 2010. According to Demenopoulos, it’s this Chinese connection, and COSCO’s brand image, that PPA hopes to leverage in order to attract more of the growing Chinese cruise market.

Picking up on a quote from the Chinese ambassador describing Piraeus as Europe’s “dragon head,” commentators like to emphasise Piraeus’ role in reaching Northern European markets via the Belgrade-Budapest railway, but this is only a tiny part of the story. Piraeus’ primary function is trans-shipment by sea. This means breaking down the mega-ships that come through the Suez Canal and putting containers on smaller “feeder” vessels heading to ports across Europe. Passenger transport and the cruise industry are also very important to Piraeus, as is reviving Greece’s flagging shipyard industry. As Demenopoulos suggests, “Piraeus is an unusually diverse port.”

Across the board of these diverse interests, PPA and PCT are focused on (and successfully achieving) growth. Growth means money, jobs, and progress, but it also means noise, pollution, and yet more space given over to industry. Speaking to people in the poor Piraeus’ neighbourhood of Perama, it is this paradigm, more than Chinese ownership per se, that appears to be the main objection to COSCO’s arrival. Perama is run-down, but it is free from the life-denying stillness of true poverty. On Tuesday mornings, the high street cafes bustle, and on Sunday evenings, the seafood restaurants do a good trade in calamar and cheap house wine. Yet good fortune is relative – things are getting better here, but everyone still remembers how good times were before the crisis.

Everyone in Perama also knows someone – a cousin, a friend – who owes their job to COSCO. One young man tells me about a neighbour, five years out of work, whom COSCO took on despite his advanced age. Another lady, in her late 30s, tells me about a cousin who found work at the port as a driver. She goes on to say that she’s not a fan of COSCO. She grew up here, and it’s sad to see what Perama has become: “Perama used to be quiet,” she says, “when I was ten, we kept the doors open all day, we had fresh air, and a nice view of the mountains too.” This is a common sentiment, as is the complaint that Piraeus was sold off to foreigners rather than kept as a Greek asset.

In a country governed by Syriza, the “coalition of the radical left,” Perama is especially old-school left. There is division between the left and the new “Golden Dawn” ultranationalists, but neoliberalism is still a dirty word around these parts. In Piraeus, I spend a pleasant evening sipping beer with a former trade union leader, Giannis Tsalimoglou, who tells me about the various erosions of workers’ rights and benefits led by COSCO. The conversation is long and the details complex, but one sentence stands out: “We have worked here for 30 years… They come, and they turn everything upside down.”

At a higher level, resistance to change is led by Greece’s powerful Central Archaeological Council (KAS), which has raised objections to COSCO’s ambitious development plans. The opposition party, New Democracy, has connected the decision to Syriza’s “ideological obsessions,” but others tell me local politics is probably to blame. Polyxeni Ntavarinou, at the Institute of International Economic Relations, says that for locals, the KAS’ recalcitrance is something akin to a “natural process.”

Natural or not, it’s a local resistance unfamiliar to Chinese investors. Like most of the long-term Chinese residents of Athens, Lan Sidian’s father is from Fujian province. He started the “Athens Silk Road International Travel” company in 2000, long before Xi Jinping launched his own “New Silk Road.” Now, Lan junior is CEO of Golden Alliance Investment Group – an offshoot of his father’s company that helps Chinese citizens land their Golden Visas. When the conversation turns to KAS and the long delayed, Chinese-backed Hellenikon Airport Development, Lan sighs. Lan was six when he moved to Athens, but he stills speaks about the Greek mentality with a certain distance: “You don’t see any skyscrapers here. Imagine if they turned just one of their islands into a free trade zone. Imagine if the Greeks opened up just a little bit, but… they are afraid of change.”

Piraeus is an undisputable success story in economic terms. The commercial manager of PCT tells me that the container terminal will become the biggest in the Mediterranean this year. Already, since PCT’s takeover in 2010, the terminal has gone from 98th to 32nd largest container terminal in the world. If there is resistance in Greece to Chinese investment, it is not on the basis of Chinese companies’ incompetence or inefficiency – rather the opposite. People here aren’t against China, they’re simply hostile to the neoliberal forces of development that China – ironically or not – represents. Sitting in his office, next to a bust of Mao and a diploma from the University of Nevada State, Lan tells me, “the Greeks live in heaven on earth, but they just don’t know how to maximise it.”