A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.
ATHENS – Jumping into the race for foreign visitors ahead of other European Union countries, Greece is counting on vaccines and eased COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to lure tourists who are the country’s biggest revenue engine.
The New Democracy government, which barred inter-regional travel for Greeks during the Easter week period, has already opened to tourists from some select countries who can show proof of vaccination or a negative Coronavirus test.
That includes the key markets of the European Union and United States, with Greek-Americans crazy to come to their family’s homeland, and also Serbia, Israel – where most of the population has been vaccinated – and the United Kingdom, which still prohibits its residents from travel.
And now those from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Russian, Rwanda, Singapore and Thailand with vaccination proof are being allowed in without fear of quarantine before Greece opens generally on May 14.
It’s a race to save the summer, with Greece ranked a favored destination hotspot for people who want to get out of lockdowns and the dark of fear and travel again to a land renowned for sun, hospitality, happiness and spitting death in the face.
Airlines are lining up too, providing 2,000 seats daily for the summer period and now American Airlines and United Airlines are joining Delta in offering non-stop flights to Athens while Emirates will fly to Greece’s capital from Newark, N.J.
In a feature, CNN noted the pent-up demand as well as people who were in the vanguard of tourism for Greece, the New Democracy government allowing restaurants and taverns closed more than half the previous year to open for outside dining on May 3, the day after Easter.
The visitors will, allegedly, have to abide by health restrictions that many Greeks are rapidly ignoring, although still wearing masks but not safe social distancing, with Greek Churches showing huge queues to get in for Easter week celebrations.
And while the government didn’t allow travel to ancestral villages for Easter, more than 11,000 people somehow found allowable exemptions to get through police checkpoints to reach them.
Most of the rest of the EU is staying under lock-and-key, giving Greece an open playing field despite worry that the pandemic hasn’t been beaten: fewer than 8 percent of Greeks have fully vaccinated and Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are still mostly full and cases stubbornly high.
Health experts on the government’s panel of doctors and scientists who are nervous about opening have seen themselves shunted aside in the gamble on the economy while hoping to save lives at the same time.
Tourism brings in as much as 18-20 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 165.53 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and is the biggest employer with some 825,000 jobs – 934,000 in 2018 during a run of record years that ended in 2020 with the plague of COVID-19.
Critics, including rival parties, are worried that the country’s health care system can barely take another critical case as the government didn’t move, as promised, to commandeer private hospitals.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government is speeding vaccinations far behind schedule because it relied on a cumbersome European Union distribution system that failed outright, but he’s not making them mandatory for health care workers.
Greeces needs tourists and their money – some 31.3 million of them came in the record year of 2019, including a raft of celebrities – to try to speed recovery from a near decade-long economic crisis.
For many Greeks, that was worsened by harsh austerity measures attached to three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($394.39 billion) that ended on Aug. 20, 2018 but the crisis lingering until the anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA was ousted in July 7, 2019 snap elections.
Mitsotakis went full speed ahead with plans to cut taxes and lure foreign investors scared off by the Leftists and he pushed for the 8-billion euro ($9.68 billion) development of the long-stalled project to turn the abandoned Hellenikon international airport on Athens’ coast into a multi-use complex and park.
That was temporarily derailed by the pandemic but investors are also keen on pouring their money into Greece again and luxury hotels and chains are rushing to build and open new facilities – where guests this year must follow health rules.
WHY NOT US?
Greeks are happy that people are coming – especially islanders whose livelihoods depend on them – but aren’t happy they are still subject to some restrictions although they’re largely being defied, the government making no move to stop mass public parties by the young in city squares.
Technically, Greeks must get government permission to move about for allowable missions but the second you send a text message on a cell phone there’s a ding indicating you’re good to go.
Schools are opening again as are malls for indoor shopping – but restaurants can’t have indoor dining and musicians have complained they can’t have concerts – and the government is going to make self-testing mandatory for public workers.
Most businesses have been allowed to reopen with limits on how many customers can be in stores although shoppers can make purchases online and pick up goods outside, at safe distances from each other.
Dr. Theoklis Zaoutis, Professor of Pediatrics and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a member of the government's advisory committee, told CNN the tourist opening is essential for morale too.
"We want to give (the Greek) people a ray of hope, given that everyone is tired," he said CNN. "If the numbers get better or worse, we have an opportunity to change the road map," he added."We have two tools now that we didn't have last year, namely vaccines and self-testing kits. Twenty-five percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose. The goal is to increase vaccination across all age spectrums."
While airlines from the US are showing demand for summer seats, there’s not been a crush for the spring so far as tourists are still showing anxiety mixed with need, and the numbers aren’t yet significant.
Most of Athens’ small hotels are still closed, many property owners have shifted from Airbnb back to rentals after the bottom of the market fell out during the pandemic when no one came and there’s still trepidation about safety.
Boutique property 18 Micon Str., a short walk from Monastiraki Square, in mid-March but was 90 percent empty, Frini Spanaki, Director of the company that owns the hotel told the site.
But she thinks people will come again now.
"We have bookings mostly from mid-May onwards, the majority from the UK, US, Israel, France, Denmark and Belgium, with 99 percent of them on a flexible basis," she said, with flight schedules still being worked out.
"I believe Athens is a safe destination," she said. "Safeguarding the health and safety of visitors has now become ingrained in the culture of all sectors. Therefore, there is no reason anyone should hesitate to book a holiday in Athens or on the islands."
It isn’t showing yet even around the Acropolis but the hope is not just vaccinations and self-tests but the tractor beam attraction of Greece in the spring, with flowers blooming, and in the sun, with joy and beaches replacing terror about COVID-19.
If the tourists aren’t here yet, the bet is that they will be, led by a cavalcade of Greek-Americans.
Katerina Rodopoulou, Rodopoulou, who crafts delicate silver earrings and necklaces by hand, has yet to receive a customer from abroad since reopening earlier in April and said the whole economy should open.
"It's a somewhat strange situation, in terms of how visitors will come here without being quarantined and what will happen here with vaccination. It all seems very unclear," Rodopoulou also said.
"I don't expect that visitors will start flooding in on May 15. I think people might even be slightly more reluctant to travel this year because Greece hasn't demonstrated it is effectively handling the pandemic."
Mina Agnos, founder and President of inbound destination management company Travelive, said holiday bookings for Greece from her clients, 70 percent of whom are North American, are picking up fast and furiously.
"We've had a lot of early bookings, especially for August and September. I think September will be peak season this year," she said.
"There has been a shift this week after the announcement that Greece is reopening. It looks like we'll have a good amount of travelers coming from the US this year, particularly since they couldn't visit last year."
A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.
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