Greece's tourism sector will grow moderately this year, a top United Nations official said on Thursday, in a rare optimistic forecast for the crisis-hit Mediterranean country whose image has been dented by strikes and protests.
Visits to Greece's sun-drenched islands and ancient ruins account for about 15 percent of the economy and one in five jobs, making income from tourism crucial for a country grappling with a fifth year of recession.
Roughly 10 percent more tourists visited Greece last year, largely due to lower fares and the political turmoil in popular holiday destinations Egypt and Tunisia. The tourism sector contracted by a fifth in 2009-2010.
Greek industry officials have said that, based on a fall in pre-bookings from Germany, they expected tourism revenues to shrink this year.
But Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the U.N. World Tourism Organization, struck a more optimistic note on Thursday.
"Greece will have a positive growth although not in the same range as 2011," Rifai told reporters during a visit to Athens, characterising the growth as "modest."
He said the impact of the Arab Spring uprisings will not be as strong as last year, and the sector's performance will depend a lot on the political situation in Greece and whether the government will make it easier for tourists from growing markets such as Russia and China to get visas.
Greek Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, who took part in the same news conference, declined to make any specific forecast or even say if he saw tourism growing or shrinking this year.
Greek tourism bodies have launched campaigns to lure German tourists, the world's largest spenders on foreign holidays, back to the islands after the debt crisis deterred many from choosing the Mediterranean nation for vacations.