08/01/2011 02:18 EDT | Updated 10/01/2011 05:12 EDT

Striking Greek cabbies step up blockades, tourists forced to reach island airport on foot

ATHENS, Greece - Striking Greek taxi owners stepped up their protests Monday, blockading highways and a busy regional airport, after fresh negotiations with the government on new licensing laws collapsed.

The open-ended strike — now 16 days old — is taking place at the height of the tourist season and it has prompted warnings from the country's tourism industry and the Socialist government as it battles the country's financial crisis.

But protest organizers have ignored those warnings.

On Monday, taxi drivers blocked a highway in southern Greece as well as roads to Iraklio international airport on the holiday island of Crete, where tourists were forced to walk several hundred yards (meters) under a fierce sun. Riot police finally used tear gas to clear away the strikers, several of whom had been throwing stones at them.

Motorists were forced to take boats from the southern Peloponnese region to the mainland, after taxi drivers blocked the Rio to Antirrio toll-bridge for about six hours, severely disrupting traffic. Cabbies also blocked access to the main port on the island of Corfu.

The government signalled plans to take a tougher line against the protesters.

"Every professional group has the right to make demands. But no one has the right ... to close highways, ports and airports," Public Order Minister Christos Papoutsis said, heading an emergency meeting of the police's leadership, reportedly to draw up plans to deal with the taxi protest. "This is preventing the country from functioning properly and the economy from functioning properly at such a difficult time."

Thymios Lymberopoulos, head of the protesting greater Athens Taxi Owners Association, said his members would surround the Transport Ministry in Athens for 48 hours.

"They are not giving us a chance to take even one step back," Lymberopoulos told protesters over a loudspeaker after meeting Transport minister Yiannis Ragoussis. "They are creating an atmosphere of tension that no one will be able to control. But we will proceed."

Taxi owners are angry at plans to open up their profession to more competition as part of business licensing reforms in Greece. They argue that taxi owners will unfairly lose the money they invested buying licenses — around €100,000 ($142,500) — when the changes take effect.

"I got into debt so I could get a license and support my family and now Ragoussis wants to take it all away," protesting taxi driver Yiannis Papagelis said.

The reforms have been demanded by European Union countries and the International Monetary Fund, as part of austerity measures required to pay out rescue loans worth more than €110 billion ($157 billion).

The government has failed to reach its deficit-reduction goals in 2011, hurt by weak tax-collection revenues. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Greece was determined to meet its fiscal targets this year.

"The reforms we have announced will be implemented and the targets we have made remain unchanged ... because this is vital for the country," he said.

Spyros Ginis, deputy chairman of the Greek Tourism Enterprises Association, said the taxi strike was hurting the industry in high season.

"You can't have one part of society pointing a gun at another," Ginis told private Skai television.

"Tourism is the only sector that is doing well at the moment in the Greek economy and it distributes wealth to every part of the country," he said. "So this protest is really not helping."

Greece's Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies, or HATTA, warned that the protests would "with certainty" lead to "the final sacrifice of Greek tourism to individual demands, and the ultimate collapse of our country's international image."