‘It’s plain elitist’: anger at Greek plan for €5,000 private tours of Acropolis

<span>More than 22,000 people visited the Acropolis each day last summer, forcing authorities to introduce controls including a time-slot system.</span><span>Photograph: Russell Mountford/Alamy</span>
More than 22,000 people visited the Acropolis each day last summer, forcing authorities to introduce controls including a time-slot system.Photograph: Russell Mountford/Alamy

Jackie and Malcolm Love stood amid a bevy of tourists in the heart of Athens taking in the Acropolis with a mixture of awe and admiration. The Greek capital’s greatest classical site was truly magnificent, they said, but the crowds had been such, even in April, that they preferred to experience it from a distance.

“We didn’t go, not with all those people,” said Jackie, looking up at the fifth-century monument from the cobbled boulevard below. “We didn’t think it’d be the best thing to do, did we?” she said, nudging her husband.

The couple, enjoying a city break from Ipswich, their English hometown, had pondered whether to do a private tour instead. The Greek culture ministry is planning personalised visits to the ancient complex – at €5,000 (£4,285). “We wouldn’t pay that,” said Malcolm, a lorry driver. “Crazy prices,” Jackie chipped in. “Certainly not for people like us.”

The Acropolis is by far Greece’s biggest attraction, drawing more than 22,000 visitors a day last summer, forcing authorities to introduce tough controls, including a time-slot system.

This year, officials have gone a step further, announcing a scheme that allows sightseers to beat the crowds and experience the Periclean masterpiece on an exclusive basis. The initiative foresees up to four groups of five people being guided by expert archaeologists around the site between 7am to 9am and 8pm to 10pm – before opening and after closing times – to avoid the thousands of selfie-snappers who hourly ascend the rocky hill. “We’ve had requests from tour operators for this for a very long time,” said Nikoleta Valakou, the president of the Hellenic Organization of Cultural Resources Development, a state body connected to the culture ministry.

The ministry, she said, was prepared to permit tours for individuals, provided they were willing to pay the group fee. “There’ll be souvenirs too,” added Valakou. “A replica of a coin, perhaps, or copy of a small statue … something to conjure memories of the unique experience.”

But the measure – part of an overhaul of ticketing policy at more than 350 archaeological sites and museums managed by the Greek culture ministry – has triggered anger and derision, including from archaeologists. Guides have described it as impractical and critics have argued it runs counter to the spirit of everything the world’s pre-eminent symbol of democracy is supposed to represent. “The next thing you know people will be making marriage proposals and drinking champagne up there,” said Despina Koutsoumba, the vice-president of the country’s archaeologists’ association. “They’ll feel entitled, if they’ve spent that sort of money, to do whatever they want at the site.”

The very idea, she said, was “unacceptably exclusive”. After all, the monument was the emblem of democratic Athens in which citizens enjoyed equality before the law.

“What this says is Greece is willing to give people who have money the ability to enjoy the Acropolis in a very exclusive way while leaving out those who simply don’t have such means. We’re utterly opposed to it,” Koutsoumba added.

Previously, only world leaders, royalty and the odd celebrity had been granted access to the site out of opening hours.

The public, with the exception of academics and preservationists, have one day – the August full moon – to savour the temples at night.

As opposition has mounted, critics have questioned the wisdom of the decision at a time when the wealth gap between the rich and poor has become ever more accentuated. “It’s plain elitist,” said Costas Zambas who headed restoration works at the Acropolis for over 25 years.

“The very notion goes against the spirit of a place that we associate with democracy. It doesn’t sit well.”

With Athens at the sharp end of the climate emergency, tourist guides have raised objections over the workability of a scheme that for the vast majority will mean the site opening at 9am instead of 8am. Last summer the Greek capital – continental Europe’s southernmost metropolis – experienced record temperatures of up to 45C (113F), compelling officials to take the unprecedented step of closing the Acropolis for several days.

“If they push back opening hours to 9am because of these private tours it’s going to be a disaster,” said Kriton Piperas, who until recently was the head of the 4,000-strong Panhellenic Federation of Tourist Guides. “For several years our union has been pressing for the Acropolis to open earlier precisely because of the changing weather. Don’t forget with the lack of shade it’s that much hotter up there.”

Increasingly, he said, Greece’s pro-business centre right government saw culture through an exclusively commercial lens. “They look at the Acropolis and anything associated with tourism as a product,” he said. “This idea of unique tours is like putting a price tag on the site, it reminds me of an auction where the highest bidder wins and is told ‘you can have it all to yourself’. It’s wrong and bound to lead to trouble.”

Ticket-holders on cruise ships, which are the source of ever more day-trippers to the Greek capital, often book months in advance and are on a very tight schedule. Most are waiting in line at the Acropolis by 8am.

In her office overlooking a central Athens boulevard, Valakou said the culture ministry had taken the criticism onboard. The tours, it is estimated, could bring in up to €40,000 a day, with proceeds going to cash-starved cultural projects.

“Revenues will be reinvested,” she said. “As the Acropolis will be the first for such tours it’ll be a pilot programme and we’ll be open to change.”

The omens are not all bad. The scheme has been met with delight by some in the Greek diaspora where the well-heeled have already suggested they will be signing up.

“I’ve heard from dozens of friends who’ve expressed interest in joining these bespoke tours,” said Peter Poulos, the executive director of the Hellenic Initiative, a global Greek diaspora philanthropic organisation.

“Why not relieve people of their money if it’s going to help protect and preserve our cultural monuments for generations to come? We all support the loftiest of ideals but at the end of the day ideals aren’t going to pay the hard costs needed to run a site of this magnitude.”