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With crisis at home, Greek-Americans to economic rescue?

By Jeff Stein,, CNN
A tourist walks down the sidewalk while protesters line the streets and police stand guard in Greece, on Tuesday.
A tourist walks down the sidewalk while protesters line the streets and police stand guard in Greece, on Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Greece's economy has been in economic crisis; protests have roiled the nation
  • Some Greek-Americans are putting their tourism dollars to work in home country
  • One woman canceled her Caribbean cruise so she could go to Greece
  • Greek government loosening regulations on cruise ships, eliminating taxes for airlines

New York (CNN) -- Larisa Antypa was ready for her cruise in the Caribbean when news of the economic crisis in Greece, her home country, began to worsen.

Antypa, a program coordinator for the Greek Cultural Center in Astoria, Queens, canceled her trip and decided that she would instead spend her vacation money in Greece.

Like a growing number of her fellow expatriates, Antypa hopes to bolster the teetering Greek economy -- roiled again on Tuesday by a wave of violent protests and a countrywide strike against proposed austerity measures -- through tourism. It accounts for 15% of the country's jobs and 18% of its GDP, according to the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

"I want to support Greece by spending my money there; it's very important when your country's in trouble to do whatever you can," Antypa said. "I ask people why they're going back, why they don't go somewhere else, and they say, 'Now, Greece needs us.' "

Antypa said that more members of her community, largely motivated by pride of country, are vacationing in Greece than ever before. This perception was corroborated by Ted Spyropoulos, president of the U.S. chapter of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, who said the number of Greek-Americans visiting home has surged and is expected to increase anywhere from 20% to 30% in 2011 from 2010.

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"(Greeks) have an obligation to go because Greece needs the help right now," said Spyropoulos, who added his organization has launched a campaign to encourage Greek-Americans to travel there. "There's been a call from outside that Greece needs help."

This year's 10% increase in income from American tourists, who spend three times more than the average traveler, was huge for Greece's economic development, said Chris Petsilas, the director of the U.S. office of the Greek National Tourism Organization. Despite Greece's debt crisis and crippling unemployment, Pestilas said tourism is booming.

"In crises, other tourists postpone their trips to our country; this year, the Greek-Americans will come and they will bring all their friends," Pestilas said.

Pestilas added that the Greek government had encouraged tourism from Americans by loosening regulations on cruise ships, eliminating taxes for airlines and cutting fees for hotels.

Still, for many Greek-Americans, attempts to visit Greece have been hamstrung by high airfare prices and a sputtering economy at home.

"It's depressing and sad watching our country, which is dependent on tourists," said George Kouvaras, owner of Piros custom furniture, who is not returning to Greece for the first time in several years. "But there's no money to go (and) the tickets are expensive, the euro is expensive, the hotels are expensive."

Paul Collaros, a member of the Pan-Icarian Brotherhood, agreed, saying he had to postpone his trip from Dyer, Indiana, to Greece.

"Everything's become so expensive due to what's going on, it's making it even harder for Greek-Americans to make the trip," Collaros said.

But even if they cannot return to visit, Greek-Americans say that their country never travels far from their thoughts.

"It's scary; it's frightening; it's hurtful to wake up every day and watch and see the coverage of everything that's going on in Greece. ... We can't help but feel bad that our brothers and sisters have to go through this," said Antonis Diamataris, editor and publisher of a Greek newspaper, The National Herald. Like The Greek News, the Herald is urging its readership to visit Greece this summer.

"We cannot save the Greek economy, raise 100 billion dollars, and give it to them, so what we can do is spend our money in Greece -- and hope and pray things will improve."