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August 13, 2009

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Iceland hot but Europe suffers tourist meltdown

BELOW the Acropolis in Athens, Thomas Ntaras sits outside his empty souvenir shop watching a few tourists strolling through the usually packed alleys.

The global downturn has hit his business hard this summer and it may not survive to the end of the year, he says.

"There are very few tourists and they don't spend because they can't afford it," said Ntaras, 39, who said his summer income was down 50 to 70 percent.

All over Europe, the peak summer season looks bleak with fewer arrivals and lower revenues as those who travel do so on a budget, dragging countries like Greece, Spain and Italy, where tourism is a crucial source of income, deeper into crisis.

But the financial crisis has come with a silver lining for Iceland. "Since the Icelandic currency has weakened so much, we have seen an increase in tourism," said Olof Yrr Atladottir, director for the Icelandic Tourist Board.

Iceland's Blue Lagoon resort, whose waters are said to have healing properties, says bookings started climbing within a month of the crisis erupting last October. "It has been a steady development since," spokeswoman Magnea Gudmundsdottir said.

Iceland is a rarity.

"The decline in tourism in Europe associated with the economic downturn has been every bit as bad as had been feared," the UN World Tourism Organization said.

Europe was the world's second-worst hit region after the Middle East in the first four months of 2009 with a 10-percent drop in tourist arrivals. Most tourism bodies or industry groups across Europe report similar data for the summer, with revenues seen down as much as 15 percent in Greece and Italy.

Europe boasts 10 of the world's top 20 destinations in terms of tourism revenues and accounted last year for just over half the world's international tourist arrivals, according to the UNWTO, showing how tourism is key to many of its economies.

Tourists now are lured to destinations with cheaper currencies, like Turkey and Morocco, cut short their holiday plans due to the weak dollar and pound or stay at home worried about their jobs or swine flu, officials said.

Those who do travel look for cheaper deals, wait for hotels to slash prices and spend less on extras - including souvenirs like those Ntaras sells in Athens.


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