ΑΤΗΕΝS -- A prime destination for hoped-for travel this summer, Greece is betting that allowing tourists with proof of COVID-19 vaccinations or a negative test - and its own accelerating inoculations - will be a lure to bring big numbers.
Not waiting for the cumbersome European Union, which still hasn’t agreed on COVID-19 certificates for passports - Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ idea - Greece is already allowing in safe tourists from the United States and a handful of select countries even as the pandemic lingers.
There will be a general opening from more countries on May 15, when health restrictions will still be place although they’ve been eased so much from an already lenient lockdown it seems only mask wearing is essential for now.
While Greece wants all visitors vaccinated, the government only now has moved to speed shots after relying on a failed EU distribution scheme, with only 10 percent of the population fully protected.
Public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICU’s) are still near full, there was a jump in deaths and cases remain stubbornly high but analyses of wastewater in the capital Athens and the second-largest city Thessaloniki show the tide may turn.
Greece relies on tourism for 18-20 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 166.46 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and the second had employed close to one million people during a run of record years before the pandemic hit in 2020.
While Greece is welcoming Americans and the Greek-American Diaspora, the US State Department still is advising them not to go to Greece which is listed as Level 4: Do Not Travel despite the improving record in dealing with COVID-19.
“We welcome a common position” on restarting tourism in the European Union, Greece’s Tourism Minister, Harry Theoharis told The New York Times in an interview as he touredthe US to make Greece’s case.
“All we’re saying is that this has to be forthcoming now. We cannot wait until June,” he said, which would likely be too late to save a second summer from collapsing, Greece urgently needing tourism revenues.
Current rules stipulate that visitors from the US, EU, United Kingdom - where people aren’t yet allowed to travel - South Korean, Australia and a few other countries can enter Greece without worry of quarantine if they’re safe.
Visitors may also be subject to random, obligatory rapid tests at the airport; anyone with a positive result will be required to quarantine at a Greek hotel along with their traveling companions for at least 10 days, at the expense of the Greek government, at the level of accommodation they booked.
US airlines scrambled to add more flights, including non-stop to Athens to avoid the potential for tourists to be blocked at airports in other countries with tighter restrictions.
THE BIG QUESTION
How many will come?
“A lot of people are still in a ‘wait and see’ mode,” Chantel Kyriakopoulou-Beuvink, Director of Natural Greece, a tour operator based in Athens that works primarily with clients in the United States and Europe told writer Paige McClahanan.
She said while there’s been a boost in reservations for the summer and autumn that many people are still hesitant although booking agencies are more often offering free cancellations. “They’re interested, but they’re still waiting for more clarity,” she said.
The summer ferry schedules in Greece show that booking have already picked up , she said, especially for the Sporades islands off northern Greece, including Alonissos, Skiathos and Skopelos, but only 50 percent capacity is allowed now.
While in the past many tourists would leave Athens as soon as they landed, the city has picked up a buzz, especially among the young, and had a blossoming coffee shop culture before the pandemic locked them down.
Georgia Nakou, a political and economic analyst for the media outlet MacroPolis said Greeks are already out in numbers with the lockdown easing and they’re shaking off lockdown fatigue.
“People know that they’re going to be released, and they’re already mentally partying,” Nakou said, with the government’s advisory panel of doctors and scientists warning about complacency, noting the pandemic is still dangerous.
Greece allowed the outdoor opening of bars and restaurants on May 3, but tables will be further apart, numbers of customers will be limited and the scene won’t be normal like previous years.
Open-air archaeological sites like the Acropolis in Athens have already reopened to the public, with masks required of all visitors. Museums — including the National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum — will reopen May 15 with social-distancing measures and limited visitors.
Health measures will be tight in hotels, including weekly rapid testing of staff and mandatory mask wearing in common-use areas and tourists must follow the same rules as residents.
In 2020, Greece’s revenue from foreign tourism fell to a quarter of the more than 18 billion euros ($21.63 billion) registered the year before with expectations that 2020 would be just as good, before the pandemic changed everything.
“The last year felt like a nuclear explosion in our society,” Kostas Tzilialis, a co-owner and co-worker at Locomotiva Cooperativa, a cafe and bookshop in central Athens told the paper.
He said that before the pandemic, tourists accounted for up to 40 percent of daytime guests at the cafe which struggled to survive during lockdowns with takeout and delivery only.
“Unfortunately, after more than 10 years of economic hardship, tourism and food is our only industry,” Tzilialis said. “We don’t produce cars or machines. So we have to open our industry right now. Let’s hope that people will be careful and the vaccines will protect us.”
Added Nakou: “I think there is little alternative, to be honest, given the importance of the sector in the economy,” she said.