By Renee Maltezou
ATHENS (Reuters) - Foreign tourists are returning to Greece's sun-drenched islands and ancient temples, central bank data showed on Friday, boosting hopes that the key sector may help the crisis-hit country pull itself out of a severe economic recession.
Tourism figures have clearly benefited from comparison to last year, when speculation about Greece being forced out of the euro and fears of social unrest had scared away many visitors before the peak summer holiday season.
But Greece's tourist industry is taking heart from data showing a 38.5 percent annual rise in receipts in May and a 15.5 percent increase in the first five months this year and predicts a bumper season.
"It's a very positive sign," Yannis Retsos, the head of Greece's Hoteliers told Reuters. "I believe this upward trend will continue in the coming months. With the help of tourism, Greece could take a first step towards growth."
Greece's current account balance also swung to a small surplus in May, helped by a narrower trade gap and higher tourism receipts.
Tourism accounts for about 17 percent of output and one in five jobs in a country where unemployment has risen to about 27 percent. Tourism officials see a 10 percent revenue rise in 2013, to 11 billion euros, on the back of an expected record 17 million visitors, one million more than in 2012.
A popular destination mainly for Germans and Britons for decades, Greece is now attracting increasing numbers of tourists from Eastern Europe, with these markets accounting for about a fifth of total arrivals, a trend which is expected to continue.
In the first six months of the year, foreign tourist arrivals increased 10 percent annually with summer resorts such as the Aegean island of Mykonos seeing a 60 percent increase in airport arrivals.
Although Greece expects more foreign visitors this year, domestic tourism - which accounts for up to 25 percent of total tourism revenues - has been severely hit and is seen remaining at last year's depressed levels, tourism bodies have said.
Greek incomes are being severely squeezed, cut by about 30 percent on average since the crisis started 2009, with signs that some Greek families can no longer afford long summer vacation or frequent weekend escapes away from Athens to nearby islands.
A survey conducted earlier this month by the consumers' institute INKA showed that more than two thirds of Greeks have not planned a summer holiday this year.
About 70 percent of the 545 respondents said that this was mainly due to financial reasons and 20 percent said job and income uncertainty had deterred them from making the decision.
The majority of Greek vacationers said their getaway would last up to five days and more than half of those polled said that they would stay with family or friends rather than spend money on hotels.
(Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos)