Undercover island-hopping tax inspectors are trying to fix the Greek debt one beach at a time

Officials disguised as holidaymakers are targeting tourists and locals alike in an attempt to make small businesses on Greek islands pay their taxes.

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Two middle-aged women in patterned kaftans are wandering up the beach, their sandals splashing on the shingle. Both wear black oversized sunglasses that block out the 35-degree sunshine, and are heading away from the glistening sea with a purpose suggesting a race to bag the best-placed sunbeds.

They suddenly stop and turn to me, muttering something in Greek. I look up and apologise in English for not knowing the language, and go back to my book, assuming they’ll walk off. But they stay, hands outstretched, stern-faced, repeatedly asking me for something. I realise eventually that they are referring to the receipt for the handful of euros I paid for a sun lounger that morning. I scrabble around the summery detritus in my beach bag until I find it. They de-crumple it and peer at it for a good few minutes, then nod, hand it back, and march on to the next group of unsuspecting tourists on the beds beside mine.

It’s August on the Greek island of Spetses, a rugged mass of pine trees and pebble-specked coves a two-hour ferry ride from the Athens port of Piraeus. It has sleepily been receiving middle-class Athenians and linen-clad Europeans each summer since its wild days as a backpacking hotspot faded in the Nineties.

It no longer enjoys the financial heft it did as a hub on a major 15th-century trade route (when Venetian merchants named it Spezia – “spice”) nor the political influence it held as a naval power of the War of Independence in 1821-32. Its local population has been steadily dwindling from around 13,000 during its golden age as a maritime centre in the 19th century to less than 4,000 today.

But the modest contribution Spetses and islands like it make to modern-day Greece’s decrepit coffers is coming under intense scrutiny since the debt crisis earlier this year. Tax inspectors disguised as holidaymakers – like my unexpected seaside visitors – are hitting the islands during the peak of the season to catch out small businesses that have been avoiding declaring their profits.

“They jumped out at my colleague from behind a tree yesterday,” a beach attendant tells me, cradling a portable till. “They’re always around – it’s different this year. I think they are sending them out around 100 times this year, to all the islands. They are trying to make it to all the little businesses. It’s just pot-luck if they come to you. I recognise these ones; they’ve been here before, but they only wanted a quick look at our books that year – now it’s every single receipt.”

I speak to her colleague, whose job is to collect money from beachgoers for the sunbeds each day. She is more scathing about the incognito inspectors: “They’ll stay for a few days until they’ve had their fill, until they have filled their stomachs, and then I’m sure they’ll decide they’ve had enough and go back to Athens.”

Elsewhere on the island’s coast, a waiter at a small restaurant serving plates of fried calamari and salads festooned with feta cheese tells a group of diners that they should keep hold of their receipt. But it is notable that some tables – mine included – are handed no proof of payment at all. It seems some businesses have developed methods of declaring some, but not all, of their earnings.

Greece’s difficulty extracting taxes from its citizens was a constant theme of the crisis talks with the Troika in July, when the country came closest to crashing out of the eurozone. At the end of 2014, Greeks owed their government about €76bn (£53bn) in unpaid taxes that have mounted up over the decades. As the heat of the holiday season begins to take the edge off a long and difficult summer for the Greek people, it looks like the practice of island-hopping may be taking on a whole new, far less welcome, meaning for them.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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