Travel: Athens' Countdown to Olympics; as the 2004 Olympic Games Draw Nearer, Maria Petrakis and Angeliki Koutantou Look at How the Host City Is Preparing Itself for a Massive Influx of Visitors from All over the World

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Byline: Maria Petrakis and Angeliki Koutantou

New hotels, cruise ships and even private homes have been drafted into Athens' bid to have enough rooms for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who will descend on the ancient city for the 2004 Olympics.

However, Games officials, who last week started the two-year countdown to the start of the event, are worried that there is still a major challenge ahead to meet the near-insatiable demand for accommodation.

Athens Games organisers (ATHOC) say that, with rooms for the nearly 20,000-strong Olympic family of officials and guests now largely provided for, the focus has shifted to satisfying the demands of the ordinary tourist and sports fan.

'We are very close to the target of between 18,000 and 19,000 hotel rooms for the Olympic family,' Basil Niadas, general manager of Games services, which is in charge of accommodation, explained.

Greece's main port of Piraeus, just on the outskirts of Athens, is in the middle of a facelift that will allow up to 15 cruise liners to berth, making more than 3,000 rooms available for people like sponsors, international sports federations and high-paying tourists.

It was a tactic that was highly successful at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney which used its famed harbour as a stunning and popular backdrop.

With most of the new and future Athens hotel rooms reserved for the Olympic family, Athenian residents have been pressed to open their homes to visitors.

There are no hard estimates on how many tourists will visit Athens for the games but ATHOC believes that from 100,000 to 150,000 beds per day will be needed from when the Games open on August 13 to the August 29 closing ceremony.

'But even this number could increase because a survey found there was a low number of people who knew Athens was organising the Games while a big number said it was too early to decide if they would come,' Niadas said.

Another complication was the tourist who might want to combine a Greek island and Games holiday, in which case they could stay outside Athens and visit Games events, he added.

Although anecdotal evidence suggests the supply of private homes will be more than enough to cover demand, Athenians, despite a well-deserved reputation for hospitality, are so far not lining up to throw open the doors of their homes to visitors.

An ATHOC poll showed about 75 per cent of Athenians would not consider renting out their homes during the Games.

ATHOC officials think some homeowners willing to open their doors have unrealistic expectations of how much they will get from well-heeled tourists. ATHOC, which has called a tender to choose companies to oversee the private home plan, has warned Greeks against any get-rich-quick ideas.

Stratos Paradias, who heads a group of landlords lobbying the government for rents received during the Games to be tax-free, says expectations are high. …