Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras hopes his four-day trip to China this week will help his country’s ailing economy by attracting investment and promoting the export of Greek products.
Upon the invitation of the head of the Chinese government Li Keqiang, Samaras will visit Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou from Wednesday to Sunday, and will meet several Chinese officials.
He will thus become the second EU leader, after French President Francois Hollande, to visit the Asian country since the new Chinese leadership came to power.
Samaras will be accompanied by his ministers of foreign affairs, tourism, development and merchant marine and a group of around 60 Greek businessmen.
Emphasising the importance of the visit, local media report that the premier, who is expected to sign a series of bilateral and business agreements, hopes to turn Greece into a gateway to Europe and will discuss issues of transport, energy, privatisations, shipping and tourism.
Already in Beijing, Deputy Minister for Development Notis Mitarachi said the visit signalled “a new page” in the relations between the two countries.
“Greece’s relations with China have been good for years. It is now important to further develop specific collabouration agreements regarding investment and exports,” Mitarachi told the Athens News Agency (ANA) over the weekend.
“There is particular interest (on behalf of China) in infrastructure, namely ports and airports,” he added.
China has recently made several big investments in various sectors of the crisis-hit Greek economy.
Most notably, in 2008 China’s giant transportation group Cosco became a major force in the main Greek port of Piraeus near Athens, while in March, US computer giant Hewlett Packard sealed a deal with Cosco to move a key part of its regional supplies through Piraeus.
According to a study quoted Sunday in daily Kathimerini, product distribution in Piraeus has more than tripled in the past three years, while distribution in other Mediterranean ports only increased by 20 per cent.
The Cosco-HP agreement coincided with the completion of Greek state rail operator Trainose’s new railway line that connects the port with the main European freight network.
Trainose is up for privatisation.
According to ANA, Samaras’s meetings will focus on further developing Piraeus as a gateway of Chinese products into Europe.
Chinese ambassador in Athens Du Qiwen stressed the importance of Samaras’ meetings.
“There is serious interest shown by a group of Chinese businesses. They are seriously interested in participating in the privatisation process of Athens international airport,” he told local reporters last week.
Qiwen, who reportedly described the Cosco investment as “win win,” said prospects for the export of Greek olive oil, wine, furs and marble are very promising.
According to data provided by the Greek-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, bilateral commerce between the two countries, negligible in the 1970s, jumped to 3.29 billion euros (HK$33.2 billion) in 2010.
In 2011, despite the economic crisis, it reached 3.25 billion euros (HK$32.8 billion).
The chamber’s data shows a 50 per cent increase in the sale of Greek olive oil in China in the first half of last year and a staggering overall 1175 per cent increase in the sale of Greek wine between 2009 and 2011.
“Greece is starting to become very fashionable for the Chinese. There are Chinese couples who come to (the island of) Santorini to get married,” says head of the Greek-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Constantine Yannidis.
The chamber estimates that between 60,000 and 100,000 Chinese tourists visited Greece in 2011.
According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), China was the largest spender in international tourism globally last year.
A recent UNWTO report showed that the number of international trips by Chinese travellers skyrocketed from 10 million in 2000 to 83 million last year, while their expenditure abroad has increased almost eightfold since 2000.
Greece has been seeking investors to counterbalance the effects of a continuous deep recession, now in its sixth year and a fierce unemployment rate of 27 per cent.
The heavily indebted country has been relying on rescue loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for its economic survival.