Athens – the Olympic city – Part 1

The city that in 1896 hosted the first Modern Olympic Games is gearing up to receive more than five million visitors for next year’s games – but will it be ready in time?

London may have just decided to join the qualifying race for the Olympic Games 2012, but Athens, the host to the world’s largest sporting event in 2004, is now facing the last sprint to the finish line.

While the Olympic Games are essentially a celebration of humanity and a showcase for human endurance, the two-week event has become an opportunity not only for cities to attract significant investment for urban regeneration and local infrastructure but also to market the destination’s tourist and convention attractions to a global audience. For the host city, the legacy of the games is almost as vital as the event itself.

Athens’s ability to fulfill the requirements of the games, let alone maximize this potential, has been called into question, however. The Greek government delayed the beginning of preparations while it focused on converting to the euro, a decision that caused some alarm on the International Olympic Committee. Athens is too polluted and the traffic overwhelming, said some, while others claimed the city’s size and infrastructure could never support the demands of such a vast event.

The city itself, however, is confident that the pain of the present, including the web of scaffolding that currently shrouds the city, is well worth it for what will be unveiled next summer. “Everybody is complaining at the moment,” says Michael Koth, general manager at the five-star InterContinental hotel. “It is a frustrating time, but the city will be ready in the end. It might be a close call, but the Greeks are tremendously committed.”

In 2001 the city opened a new airport, which is now used by 16 million passengers a year and which will be linked to the new light-rail and significantly extended metro system – both as yet unfinished. Some 120km of new motorways and 90km of upgraded motorways are also planned to be completed in 2004.

One source of concern has been the ability of Athens to accommodate the 10,500 athletes, 5,500 team officials, 199 national Olympic committees, 45,000 volunteers, 21,600 media representatives, and 5.3 million ticketed spectators who will attend the two-week event.

Athens is restricted in size and development by the presence of mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The government has also historically prevented, rather than encouraged, the development of new hotel stock, while bureaucracy and the local hotel association have also created barriers to unwanted competition.

A ban on new hotels, enforced in the mid-1980s, was lifted only in December 2000 when it became apparent there were not nearly enough beds to fulfill the contractual requirements of the games – 65,000 beds for the Olympic family (athletes and their support teams) alone. Even when licenses were granted to developers, however, the prohibitive price of land meant hotel development remained limited.

The last-minute nature of Athens’s realization has led to creative solutions when it comes to housing all those who will attend the games. About 18,000 beds are expected to be provided in private homes, while another 18,150 will be housed in apartments and private rooms up to 160km away from Athens – including on the islands.

More spectacularly, however, 10,000 beds, including 2,500 for the Olympic family, will be provided by 11 cruise ships – including the brand-new Queen Mary II – which will dock in Piraeus harbor for the duration of the games. The development of the port for this purpose means that Athens will be the first city in the Mediterranean with a centralized system of sewage treatment, water supply, and rubbish recycling. This, the city hopes, will not only work as a model for other Mediterranean ports but will act as a magnet for lucrative cruise business long after the games are finished.

“Before 11 September we filled 30,000 room nights with US cruise business,” says Koth. “People’s experience of the ships during the games may help encourage the growth of a greater European cruise market.”

When it comes to housing people in hotels, Greece’s ministry of development has been more reserved, however. The Olympic Organising Committee has booked, with a deposit, 85% of the city’s rooms for the needs of the Olympic family. Rates have been agreed to avoid unreasonable price inflation.

The emphasis overall, however, has been on upgrading and extending existing stock rather than expanding the market – a strategy that has met with mixed reactions.

A report by hotel consultants PKF pointed out that “while major additions to a city’s hotel supply need to be proven to be sustainable, long-term vision can be clouded by short-term protectionism. And the lack of new supply, which normally acts as a catalyst for acceleration in demand, will leave Athens constrained in terms of future tourism.”

This opinion is reinforced by the experience of Barcelona, where graded hotel room supply increased by about 30% between 1990 and 1992. While occupancy dropped initially during and after the games, it rose again steeply in line with the city’s new popularity after the event.

Others believe that creating new rooms for a one-off event is short-sighted. “Never build a hotel for a special event,” says Chris Rouse, of hotel consultants Insignia. Local hoteliers are also more pragmatic. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” says Koth at the InterContinental. “I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, but it’s only two weeks of the year.”


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