Many of Europe's 'golden visa' programs are closing — but demand is up in this Mediterranean hotspot
Escaping to the Greek islands is the stuff of fantasy for many, at best lived out over a two-week vacation.
For others, it's a lifestyle choice. If, that is, they have the money to spend.
Greece has seen a surge in the number of people applying for its "residency by investment" program in 2022, even as such projects fall out of favor elsewhere.
Issuances of the country's "golden visa" scheme — which grants a five-year residency permit to individuals who invest a minimum of $250,000 in Greek real estate — almost doubled last year to 2,767, according to recent data from the Greek Ministry of Asylum and Migration.
That's up from 1,525 in 2021.
And while Chinese citizens are the program's top applicants, accounting for 63% of all applications since its inception in 2014, a new cohort of investors is emerging: wealthy Americans.
Applications from high-net-worth U.S. citizens surged 740% in 2021 alone, according to investment immigration firm Astons, positioning Greece as Americans' third preferred "residency by investment" destination after Portugal and the U.K.
Portugal and Ireland scrap citizenship by investment
Portugal has been the preferred destination for wealthy expatriating Americans for several years, owing to its temperate climate, good quality of life and access to the European Union's borderless travel zone.
But with the country's decision last month to scrap its program for high-net-worth non-Europeans, coming just days after similar moves by Ireland, Greece could be set to take the crown.
Alina Lesina, immigration expert for Astons USA, said it looked likely that Greece would now become the "destination of choice" for wealthy U.S. expats.
"Not only has it been the second most popular European golden visa scheme amongst U.S. investors in recent years, there has also been a huge increase in this interest on an annual basis," Lesina said.
Olympia Anastasopoulou, secretary general for tourism policy and development within Greece's Ministry of Tourism, said the trend was unsurprising given the wide appeal the country already has among holidaymakers.
"Compared to these other countries, we have a competitive advantage," Anastasopoulou told CNBC Travel at ITB Berlin.
"We have a lower cost of living, a great climate year-round, and we are iterating the program as needed," she said.
Greece has already announced that it will double its minimum investment threshold to $500,000 from May, bringing it closer in line with similar programs in other countries such as Spain.
Anastasopoulou said that was "to protect the local real estate market and protect young people." But she added that the changes would be open to reevaluation and potential adaptation.
More countries unveil 'golden visas'
Greece ranks among the world's leading "residence by investment" programs, according to the latest index from citizenship and residence advisory firm Henley & Partners.
European countries currently dominate the ranks of such indexes, scoring highly for processing times, quality of life and overall costs.
But even as some countries on the continent clamp down on golden visas, competition to attract wealthy individuals is heating up globally.
African nations are among those offering new residence and dual citizenship programs in exchange for an injection of capital from individuals with cash to spend.
Kenya is currently in the advanced stages of introducing citizenship by investment. Uganda, too, is reportedly looking into a similar program.
They join the likes of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, which offers residence to those who invest a minimum of $375,000 in one of six luxury real estate developments. Nearby Seychelles offers citizenship for an investment of at least $1 million.