ATHENS – Desperately seeking tourists to help restore an economy brought down hard by COVID-19 lockdowns aimed at slowing the pandemic, Greece has especially welcomed Americans seen coming in big numbers this summer.
While the season that opened May 15 to those who are fully vaccinated, have a negative PCR test or have recovered from the Coronavirus has been slow so far the New Democracy government expects a surge in July.
In a feature, Helena Smith for the British newspaper The Guardian noted the enthusiasm for the Americans, and with Greek-Americans seen flocking back after being shut out when the pandemic was raging in 2020.
Theo Iliadis, owner of the rug store The Loom in the tourist area of Plaka, told her about the tough time the pandemic brought to his business and those around him who rely on tourists, especially free-spending Americans.
“Americans are in town,” he smiles. “Business is good, The Loom is good and I’ve got drinks on ice,” he said, adding that US tourists don't blink at spending as much as 15,000 euros ($18,163) on old tribal rugs, carpets and kilims at his family-run shop. “They appreciate hand-made work and they’re great spenders,” he said.
With an aggressive marketing campaign unlike the old days when governments barely tried to attract visitors, Greece got off the mark first and fast in the European Union and seems set to reap the benefits.
“I’ve been coming here for years but never has there been a direct flight from Chicago,” says Carin Silkaitis who heads the theatre department at Chicago’s Columbia College. “When I saw it online I said, ‘We’re going’,” she said.
US airlines are scrambling to add direct flights to Athens and more seats expecting they'll fill fast with people anxious to travel again and get the pandemic behind them, especially in a country offering sun and islands and escape.
“It was a huge plane and very full – everyone is feeling the itch to travel after being cooped up for so long,” he said.
Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis, saids that 10 airlines, including nine US carriers, are adding Athens to their route schedules as vaccination rollouts drive a rebound in commercial air travel.
“We branded Greece as a safe destination and we said we would open on 14 May,” he told the Observer. “We didn’t change dates. It was unequivocal. The message was clear.”
The major airline hub cities of Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas now have the Greek capital on their route schedule. “More than 40percent of all seats on these flights have already been sold. Recovery is somewhere around 50 percent (in the American market) on 2019,” he said, when there were a record 33.1 million visitors.
Of that number, more than three million were holidaymakers from the United Kingdom which still hasn't moved to fully let residents travel to Greece without facing a quarantine on return despite Greece's increasingly better record.
In Greece to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary, Silkaitis and her wife, Chrissy, said they would tour much of the country and hit the islands of Naxos and Santorini. “We had thought of going to London, but Greece made it so much easier,” says the red-haired professor, an actor by profession.
“In England, we had to quarantine and take tests. For Greece, we were told if you can prove you’re fully vaccinated and fill out the (country’s) passenger locator form, you’ll be free to enter. And it was exactly like the Greek consulate in Chicago said,” she said.
“After a nine-and-a half hour flight we were in Athens. Everyone was so helpful. There were multiple lanes at the airport, we showed them the forms and were rushed through,” she said.
Theoharis said he hopes the UK visitors will be next. “There is no way without the UK market it could even be a qualified success,” he said, even with the American wave coming.
Alekos Kastrinos, co-owner of a country retreat in the hills outside the ancient capital of Napflion in the Peloponnese, told the paper that, “Americans are heaven for us,” and wanted more than ever.
“They are welcome (in) our country. They’ll leave their money and this will be very helpful for us after this disastrous coronavirus and the economic crisis. They’re a godsend,” he said.