Greece's beleaguered boat makers, yacht merchants worry luxury tax hike may torpedo business

At its height eight years ago, George Kranitis' 10,000 sq. foot family-owned shipyard Nireus in Patra, Greece's third-largest city, employed some 35 people and sold around 340 boats annually.

But after years of biting recession, Kranitis has had to fire almost everyone.

And if that wasn't enough, things just got a whole lot more taxing — literally.

In order to get its third financial bailout in five years, Greece's government has had to introduce a series of economic reforms and austerity measures — just to get discussions started.

One involves the extension of an annual luxury tax to all recreational boats over 16.4 feet (5 meters), so it's not just your average Catamaran that's a feature across countless harbours in the Aegean Sea.

Another has been increasing that tax to 13 percent from 10 percent.

The combination, according to Kranitis, could prove to be the final death knell for an industry that's already seen boat registrations shrink from a high of 11,112 in 2007 to just over 2,500 last year.

"We're being destroyed," said Kranitis who also heads the Greek Boat Builders' Association. "I can't understand what these people in government are thinking."

With a coastline that's 10,720 miles (17,250 kilometers) in length, which according to the Greek Boat Builders' Association is equal to two-thirds of Africa's, Greece is one of the world's great maritime jewels with its hundreds of islands, picture-perfect bays and seaside tavernas.

So the fate of the boating industry resonates far and wide in Greece.

"Greece is a yachting paradise, a place where everyone likes to have a small boat," said Greek Tourism Federation chief George Vernicos who also heads his own yacht business.

Anyone thinking of raising some cash to make ends meet by selling a boat will struggle as the sales tax has also been increased by a whopping 10 percentage points to 23 percent — that's unlikely to encourage buyers.

Opting to hold on doesn't come cheap. The owner of a 33-foot (10 meter) speed boat valued at 16,000 euros ($17,600) would have to pay 2,080 euros annually. For a 33-foot sailboat or yacht valued at 28,500 euros that comes with accommodation space for passengers, the amount jumps to 3,700 euros each year.

There are some reliefs.

For instance, if a boat is declared to be out of use for certain months of the year, say over winter, the tax is reduced accordingly. The vessel's age can also be taken into account and so can the owner's — pensioners get a big discount. There's also a discount for boats made in Greece exclusively out of wood and fashioned according to traditional methods.

The biggest gainers are foreign-owned boats or vessels used for work like those of fishermen — they are exempted from the tax.

For many, it's a case of finding the money or running up arrears and facing a fine with interest on top. Officials say they don't have exact figures on how many boat owners would be affected by the tax.

And there are doubts the moves will achieve what is hoped for — getting some easy cash back into state coffers.

"I don't believe they will have any income from this because even if someone would like to buy something, he would prefer to go to Italy or to another country to buy it," said Vernicos.

George Riginos, a partner in the family-owned Riginos Yachts located in the well-to-do Athens suburb of Glyfada, said chasing buyers away with higher taxes can only be damaging by putting a whole host of people along the chain out of work — from builders at shipyards to crew members and cleaners.

The Greek government's message of going after the "rich, capitalist yacht owners" just doesn't ring true, according to Riginos.

"It's a pity," he said. "Last year was the best year in sales in a long time and now that looks to be reversed."

In any case, Vernicos says the rich will work out a way of avoiding taxes.

"When you put taxes, you attack the more poor people, if I can say, rather than the very rich," he said.