Yesterday I arrived in Rhodes, Greece on a two week work-related trip. Rhodes is a very nice spot, and Greece generally excellent, after a day here I can recommend it to anyone looking for a warm, pleasant and friendly place to spend a little time. And really, what could be a better way to spend two weeks of work time than on a Greek island? However, as soon as I arrived in Rhodes I was struck by a hint of something going wrong in Greece, something which I think may not be the fault of ordinary Greek people, and which maybe serves as a harbinger of all of Europe’s fate. I thought I’d blog on my first impressions of Greece, with perhaps a little added opinionating about how Greece’s economic problems are presented by the pro-austerity gang who are in the ascendant in America and Europe. I’ve only been here a day so nothing I say is even worth of elevation to the level of considered opinion; it’s just idle musings on my first impressions of one (very rural) part of Greece.
Before I came I had visions of the islands from Porco Rosso, and pretty much everything else I knew about Greece I got from Gerald Durrell and sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, so I think it’s safe to say that I was arriving here with a pretty blank slate as far as cultural expectations go. However, Greece has been in the news a bit recently, with its economic woes being seen as a barometer for the trouble spreading over all of Europe. So I was interested, given my limited knowledge of life in Greece, to see how the land of capricious gods compares with the scary stories and hype that are broadcast across the western print media.
The first thing that I have to say is that everyone I have met (except the scary tattooed guy on the plane) has been friendly and warm, and embarrassingly multilingual. The food is excellent and the weather perfect – the only noticeable drawback of May weather in Greece appears to be that it is bone dry, and I really don’t know where the water for the hotel pool is coming from – I have seen precious little evidence of any water that isn’t in the sea. And there is a lot of sea, cobalt blue and amazingly pure. But then, I am on an Island… and the sea wasn’t very kind to me. Within minutes of dipping my toe in, I was stung by something.
However, as soon as I arrived in Greece I noticed a kind of neglect and decay that I really wasn’t expecting from a European nation. I don’t think it’s new either, and I have a suspicion that what I see hereabouts has very little to do with the global financial crisis and its effects on Greece. I think it’s part of an older, deeper malaise that is moving through all of Europe and just happens to have affected Greece first. Amongst the countries I’m familiar with, I think it will hit Britain next (or already has). What I see in Greece makes me think of many of the things I see in Britain, only without the patina of aggressive British defensiveness, and with sunshine.
This decay was obvious at the airport, which is a kind of cute but crumbling 70s relic, with holes in the ceiling through which the wiring can be seen, those low and oppressive ceilings so common in 70s public architecture, and a barely functioning arrivals lounge – there is no passport control, but it hardly matters anyway because the doors for non-EU passport holders are broken and don’t open. Once you’re outside that and out into the sunshine, you’re greeted immediately by a site that is quite rare in most of the rest of Western Europe and certainly very rare in Japan or Australia: a horde of extremely old passenger cars. They’re tiny, dusty relics from before the era of pollution controls – 80s and early 90s vehicles mostly, and battered, obviously heavily used. The taxis are all new Mercedes, but ordinary passenger vehicles are often much older than I am used to seeing in Europe. The city bus is also very old and battered, the seats obviously replaced many times and the shell battered and scuffed.
The next thing I noticed, once in my taxi, was how overgrown and neglected the countryside looks. Thick, wild shrub and grasses that were obviously untended reached right up to the roads (which are also in quite bad shape), and there was rubbish everywhere. It doesn’t appear that any effort has been made to maintain the unused land near roads and public facilities, and it’s turned into a kind of wasteland. I don’t think this the Greek government, local city authorities, or residents intend to let the countryside go wild, and in a dry and fire-prone area like Greece it’s probably not a very good idea to allow wild shrub to encroach on roads to the extent that they do here. I think this is neglect, and this sense is only enhanced by the state of the buildings I saw on my journeys through Rhodes.
Rhodes is littered with abandoned, half-finished buildings, and also with the deserted shells of abandoned businesses – especially hotels. Many of these buildings are obviously in the early stages of construction, and obviously no one is coming back to them. Some appear to have been abandoned a long time ago, not as far as I can tell during Greece’s most recent economic problems. This reminded me of Beppu, which is also a town undergoing a collapse in tourism revenue, and also has abandoned hotels and pachinko parlours scattered across the urban landscape – as well as areas of overgrown landscape that should be (and probably once was) carefully tended. It’s as if the Greek municipal authorities don’t really care about the impression that their town gives when people first arrive, or don’t have the money to do anything about it, or both.
We hear much about the infamous Greek government’s “profligate” spending and taxing policies, but looking around Rhodes I don’t see much evidence that ordinary Greek tax-payers are getting much bang for their buck. Whatever municipal services Greece provides don’t seem to be showing up in the most obvious and immediate way – rubbish disposal and parks management. I suspect that there are many Greeks who observe the same thing, and wonder why they’re suddenly having to tighten their belts when they don’t get much in the way of visible public services to start with.
I think Rhodes has in common with Beppu a long-term collapse in its main industry – tourism. This isn’t a novel, post-GFC phenomenon, but is a long-term, sustained trend that isn’t going away and reflects a brutal reality for peripheral tourism towns in developed nations. These towns grew during the boom eras of population growth and tourism, before globalizaion, and in the period when the working class of the developed world had relative purchasing power and free time. These factors combined meant that it was easy for these towns to sustain a huge tourist industry, and areas like Beppu or Rhodes grew rapidly on tourist money. But after the purchasing power of the working and middle classes began to decline, and as Asia developed, I think these tourist towns began to run into trouble. They had to compete with Asian countries for tourists, but comparatively they aren’t a great deal cheaper – travelling to Beppu, for example, costs a Japanese worker only half as much as a trip to Thailand or Cambodia, but hotels cost more. I suspect the same is true for Europeans, who now have options in Eastern Europe (places like Latvia and Croatia) for short trips, and Asia for longer trips. In such a situation, former tourist towns have to either adapt and find new industries, or they will become fading remnants. Beppu may adapt or may fade, depending on the success of its new university; but Beppu has easy road and rail connections with population centres like Kokura and Fukuoka that have huge industrial bases and thriving economies. Rhodes is an island in a country that doesn’t have a large industrial base to start with. What is it going to do?
This is another example of how the GFC may be a symptom of a bigger economic shift, and of western nations’ inability to find a solution to that shift. Industry and economic growth is heading East, and with the development of the East huge sections of traditional western economic activity are being hollowed out. In response to this the west has tried to sustain its economic growth through bubbles, and each successive collapse has simply destroyed more jobs. Greece’s economic problems aren’t solely caused by the GFC, which is simply a symptom of the desperate measures western economic policy-makers have taken to try to deal with the loss of real economic power. The result of this long-term economic decline in Rhodes is a countryside festooned with abandoned, half-finished buildings and sad, empty hotels. The same phenomenon is hitting the UK now, but instead of too many buildings unfinished, the UK has too few buildings, and too many ordinary people up to their eyeballs in debt trying to keep hold of the home they have. They do have the empty businesses though, as whole towns lose their retail sectors and corporate lending dries up.
I’ve got no idea what western policy-makers should do to stave off this change. I don’t know if they can, but I think that “wait for Asia to collapse” is not a policy option, and neither is it wise to seek new and innovative ways to reinflate the housing bubble. I think that maybe they need to revitalize industry policy: pick things they’re good at and make them work. Spend taxpayer money on finding ways to make stuff again. Industry policy is what made Japan, Korea and Thailand successful, and the fruit of that policy can be seen in their theft of western business. But fighting off Asia is going to mean a return to deficit spending, an acceptance of government debt, and a recognition that the market doesn’t just pick winners: it strangles losers. And currently, Europe and the USA are looking like the losers. Rhodes is the sign of things to come, and I think the UK is next if they can’t begin to reflect on the underlying causes of the GFC, and the best way of coming to terms with the new world order.