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Athens Airbnb: The price of economic growth in Koukaki

The small balcony of the apartment in the building next to mine hosts a different couple every few days. The loud voices I hear at night aren’t Greek but Italian, German, English. My local supermarket has been converted into a slick modern café.

This is Koukaki, downtown Athens.

Maria Petrakis
Maria Petrakis

By Maria Petrakis

She is a journalist and has lived in Koukaki for more than 20 years.

More on Maria at LinkedIn

A virtuous cycle of new technology, new transport links and old location has made Koukaki a star performer for Airbnb, the online home-sharing platform. The small residential area spreading out at the foot of the Acropolis is home to the Acropolis Museum and a metro station and has been at the center of the capital’s tourism renaissance for some summers.

This year, some 34 million tourists will visit Greece, double the number from four years ago – three times the entire Greek population of 11 million. The tourism industry has been the only sector of the economy that has been able to survive and thrive throughout the crisis. The sound of foreigners trundling through the narrow streets of Koukaki with their wheeled luggage has become ubiquitous.

SEE ALSO: Airbnb boom running out of steam in Athens-data (video)

Some of the changes that have accompanied this evolution are welcome, such as supermarkets opening on every Sunday, benefiting from the curious government policy that assumes foreigners require a supermarket every day while Greeks can make do from Monday to Saturday. My local grocer has put in a juice bar. The new Thai restaurant is a runaway hit with locals and tourists.

But alongside the trundlers glued to their phone screens are others, less visible to those who tout the benefits of Airbnb and tourism to the Greek economy.

There’s the elderly women sitting on her garden chair in one of the alleyways telling me that she’s been asked to leave her ground-floor home after 40 years but not to worry, she hopes her daughter will be able to take her in.

There’s the middle-aged man with the shopping trolley carrying all his possessions in plastic supermarket bags stopping to check rubbish bins on the street, sorting through cast-offs and old furniture.

There’s the squad of workmen moving through the apartment of another elderly neighbor as soon as she died, like a plague of locusts, painting, refitting, installing new wiring and air conditioning to ready the apartment for visitors.

The question of whether Airbnb -- and tourism generally – is a curse or blessing is one being asked in many other cities – Barcelona, Rome, Venice. The debate is the same: what price for economic growth? How does the character of a neighbourhood withstand the onslaught of tourism drawn to it by the very-same character? Should there be limits on how the so-called sharing economy can be used as a justification to evict long-term tenants from apartments so that rich foreigners can stay in them for their holidays?

This is a debate that is just beginning nervously in Athens because no one wants to be seen as killing the goose that lays the golden egg called tourism. Koukaki, with 343 listings, ranks fifth on Airbnb’s top 16 neighbourhoods to visit in 2016, with 801% growth from 2015, according to data analysis by journalist Sotiris Sideris.

But Athens is the capital of a country where a third of the population is at risk of poverty, the highest rate after Romania and Bulgaria. This makes it different to Barcelona or Rome. A recent survey has suggested that the risk of poverty in Athens rises for those in rented accommodation.

The dwellings that make up the bulk of Athens’s Airbnb offerings are apartments in buildings in densely populated central neighbourhoods, like Koukaki. The gives the “sharing economy” a completely different meaning. The residents of one apartment building have filed a lawsuit against

the owner of one of the apartments being used on Airbnb, claiming the noise, damage to common areas and lack of security contravenes the apartment building’s code.

"The elderly women sitting on her garden chair in one of the alleyways telling me that she’s been asked to leave her ground-floor home after 40 years but not to worry, she hopes her daughter will be able to take her in."

Along with the crowds, the crime. My youngest son has been mugged twice, once at knifepoint outside the well-lit courtyard of his former primary school at the foot of the Acropolis. In an event unprecedented for Greece, an altercation with muggers in a park in Koukaki left a young Greek man dead after he fell from a cliff – or was pushed. The Greek police announces arrests of gangs of pickpockets and muggers focused on tourists with depressing regularity.

While some areas of Koukaki have always been privileged – the boulevard at the foot of the Acropolis with its stately homes for example -- it was also a neighbourhood that became one of the most multicultural areas in central Athens, with Albanian migrant families moving into the less desirable ground-floor and basement apartments in the 1990s, joining a big Filippino community already there.

That’s at risk, with a vibrant multicultural community being replaced by touristy schmaltz – big-bellied men hauling spits onto the streets to roast lamb for the restaurants that line the pavement near the museum. Waiters tout for custom among passing tourists, much as they would on the crowded ports of Greek islands.

For anyone who’s been a long-time observer of the Greek tourism scene that’s alarming – it is precisely the sort of mawkishness that drew low-income tourists to the country for years and undermined the policy of attracting tourists who wanted to experience the culture and community of Greece – precisely, ironically, the Airbnb credo of “live like a local”.

What’s happening in Koukaki underlines the lack of policy in tourism planning that could be of benefit to more Greeks, instead of just some Greeks who own property in particular places. Airbnb has been a transformative force for the tourism industry everywhere – but that doesn’t mean a smart policy can’t harness it for its best use.

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