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Monday, July 9, 2012 - 5:00am

A Bootstraps-Up Approach To Greece's Debt Crisis

Updated: 2 years ago.
Many businesses in the town of Oia, on the northern tip of Santorini, are struggling to make ends meet following a drop in tourism.

A young shipping heir whose family helped turn the Greek island of Santorini into a tourist hotspot is trying to help Greece dig out of its massive debt by asking average Greeks to chip in.

Peter Nomikos hopes to build a social movement beginning with a charity he launched about two weeks ago called Greece Debt Free, which collects donations to buy Greek bonds. On Santorini, the Cycladic island of whitewashed homes, residents say they'd like help with their benefactor's charity but they can't even pay their own bills.

One recent morning, Nomikos unlocks the door to the Santozeum, a new museum and artist center he and his wife, Ileana, opened in Thira town on the island. He points out replicas of Minoan-inspired, prehistoric frescoes on the walls. Then he walks outside for a view of the deep-blue sea in the caldera of the famous volcanic isle.

His grandfather helped rebuild Santorini after a devastating earthquake in 1956. Now Nomikos, 33, wants to do his part to help relieve Greece of more than $400 billion in sovereign debt.

"Greece has given me an awful lot," he says. "I feel it's not necessarily an obligation, it's a desire. And I feel very patriotic."

Greece Debt Free gathers private donations and then uses the money to buy bonds, some of which go for as little as 13 cents on the dollar.

It's been said that each Greek owes about 24,800 euros. But with the discounted bonds, that debt can be reduced to 3,000 euros per person, Nomikos says.

"We go out and buy the cheapest bonds possible in other words, the most Greek debt for the least amount of money and then we seek to cancel them," he says.

So far, the charity has raised the equivalent of $3 million. But more than half has come from Nomikos himself and another philanthropist , the owner of Olympiakos, a popular Greek soccer club. Nomikos wants the charity to inspire a social movement. He wants average Greeks to chip in even if it's just one euro so they feel like they're reducing the debt together.

He might have luck convincing Mario and Christos Bekiaris. The 30-year-old identical twin brothers run Altana, a boutique hotel in the village of Imerovigli. Mario says he first heard about Greece Debt Free at a fancy wedding on a nearby island.

"It can have results because they are buying out Greek bonds that are currently in the hands of people with the backing of our government who are not interested in diminishing Greece's debt," Mario says.

His brother, Christos, says he would rather give money to a shipping heir instead of the Greek state. He says the state has always let him down even though he pays his taxes, which often work out to more than 40 percent of his income.

"We do not get anything back [from taxes] but the beautiful sun of Greece, you know," Christos says with a laugh. "And I don't know if you get that because you pay tax. That's the only thing you get."

The twins say bookings are down 40 percent this year, so finances are tight. But they would like to give Greece Debt Free 100 euros.

On the northern tip of Santorini, in the town of Oia, other businesses are also struggling.

Passengers from cruise ships often stop here for an hour to stroll through the whitewashed streets and buy replicas of Cubist-like Cycladic figurines. The town is famous for its sunset and is one of the most photographed spots in Greece.

A few tourists also stop at Atlantis Books, which is run by an international collective of bohemian intellectuals. One of the founders is Craig Walzer, an American from Memphis. A slew of new austerity taxes have squeezed his budget this year.

"My concern right now is will I have enough money to pay the rent in January, when we have no customers coming into the shop," Walzer says.

His neighbor Vassilis Mandilaras says he can't imagine many people on Santorini giving money right now even for a favorite son. The reality, he says, is that most people are just too broke.

"There are ideas that are connecting with reality, and there are ideas who are in the dream state," he says. "This idea, I think, belongs to the dream state."

Mandilaras is 65 and has been running his restaurant, Lotzia, for more than 30 years.

He's saving every cent to keep it open.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.