First came a high-powered motorbike ridden at speed by a figure who looked as if he might belong to the Athens chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Then the first of two black limousines with darkened windows – this one a BMW with personalised number plates. Finally, an ordinary saloon.
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The cavalcade came to a halt on the quayside by the stern of a 49-metre superyacht moored in one of the most exclusive marinas in the Greek capital. As the motorcyclist scanned the immediate vicinity, two burly figures leapt from the front of the BMW and opened the rear doors.
A man with white hair and beard emerged from one side; a woman with long, silver hair from the other. Both made their way to the gangplank, where the man exchanged a few words with the captain before they stepped aboard. A member of the crew followed, laden with shopping bags.
It was shortly before 3pm. Another weekend had begun for one of Greece’s richest couples.
At the start of the crisis, said Angelos Kopitsas, the general manager of the marina, the owners of Greece’s superyachts fled to ports in more stable countries, including Turkey. “But in the end they found it was much more convenient to stay here. It is not so easy to keep these boats in other marinas with, for example, Greek crews who want to come home.”
Greece may have proportionately fewer billionaires than other countries : Forbes currently lists only three while Germany has 101. But, for at least two reasons, the Greek superrich are exceptionally prone to controversy.
One reason is that, in a society infused with patronage and cronyism, the power of their wealth gives them influence in other, politically sensitive areas, notably the media. The second is that Greek riches are extraordinarily mobile and thus largely tax-exempt.
Most of the country’s great fortunes derive in whole or in part from shipping. Top of most lists come the descendants of Stavros Niarchos (although his eldest son, Philip, is today primarily regarded as an art collector).
Forbes makes Spiros Latsis, the son of the tanker magnate, John Latsis, Greece’s richest individual. But while the family still owns a relatively modest fleet, most of its wealth is invested elsewhere.
According to Bloomberg, today’s leading Greek shipping magnates are John Angelicoussis, George Prokopiou, Peter Livanos and George Economou. Between them, they own almost 400 vessels.
Shipping is a source of pride and jobs for Greeks. It is the one area in which they unquestionably lead the world: their country’s merchant fleet is the biggest on Earth. Directly and indirectly, it is reckoned to give work to almost 200,000 people.
But the shipping business also provokes resentment. Greece’s 1967 constitution stipulates that the industry should pay no tax on the international earnings it brings into the country. And it has little to fear from either the debt crisis or an exit from the euro.
“It’s not really affecting us because we’re not Greek companies: we’re based abroad,” said a tanker owner who requested anonymity in view of the sensitivity of the situation. “The law allows us to have a ship registered in Liberia or Panama and an office in Greece. If everything collapses, we can leave the next day and establish in Cyprus or wherever.
“Our business is done in US dollars and shipping companies don’t just have one account in one country,” he said. So, not even the imposition of capital controls on Monday had any impact on Greece’s ship owners.
Their semi-detached status has come under increasing scrutiny as the country’s economic plight has worsened. Ship owners have for some years been paying a tonnage tax and, in 2013, they agreed to double it over the three years from 2014 as an extraordinary voluntary contribution, given the country’s financial difficulties.
But, although Syriza came to power in January pledging to increase the financial burden on the shipping industry, it has not followed through. In fact, it was the troika of Greek creditors, not the Greek government, which demanded a rise in the tonnage tax in the negotiations that fell apart last week.
While the commercial shipping business may not have suffered, another maritime industry is unquestionably feeling the pinch. On the other side of the Zea marina, standing at the stern of one of his company’s yachts, was Antonis Stelliatos, the president of the Hellenic Professional Yacht Owners’ Association.
At its peak, yacht chartering, and all that goes with it, contributed an estimated 3.8% to Greece’s GDP. But in recent years it has faced competition from other countries, including Turkey. And now it faces a new challenge.
“We have VIP tourism. But it will not come easily to Greece now with this uncertainty,” said Stelliatos, shrugging.
“We are suffering. But as Greeks, we know what pain means and we will put the country back on track one way or another.”
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