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Coronavirus

Greece vs. Portugal Battle for EU’s Safest Vacation Spot

June 21, 2020

With COVID-19 lockdowns aimed at preventing the spread of the Coronavirus winding down in many countries – but not the United States- countries dependent on tourism are racing to show they're the safest, with Portugal and Greece dueling.

Tourism is the biggest revenue engine for Greece, bringing in as much as 18-20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 179.2 billion euros ($200.3 billion,) and the major employer.

In a feature on the battle for visitors, CNN noted that Greece’s record in holding down the number of cases and deaths was a draw and that both countries offer a similar package of beaches, food, history and sun – Greece has the advantage its renowned islands though.

Greece also has a big edge in safety, ranking 90th in the world with the number of cases and Portugal 34th with more than 10 times more cases than Greece and eight times the fatalities.

There’s a lot at stake: their economies, with both governments wanting to woo people, Greece putting strict hygiene protocols in place as it opened Athens’ and Thessaloniki’s airports on June 15 to visitors from countries with safe records and set to reopen all other regional airports and invite everyone beginning July 1 to save the summer.

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa believes his country remains as attractive as ever, but has launched a new campaign highlighting its safety. "All the reasons to visit Portugal are still here so tourists are welcome," he told CNN.

But the statistics he touted are far higher than Greece’s for countries with similar populations, Portugal having about 500,000 fewer inhabitants, further highlighting Greece’s better record.

But Costa said, trying to twist the numbers – Greece did virtually no testing – that, 

"We are among the countries that tested the most, we're one of the countries that better knows the real spread of the virus, where the numbers are the safest and where people can come with confidence.”

He added that, "Confidence will be one of the differentiating factors at the moment of choosing where to go on holidays — I think that Portugal is a good destination."

Sounded a lot like Mitsotakis who said Greece’s top priority was safety although health regulations on the mainland were being widely defied or ignored, including crowds gathering at bars, the hottest breeding spot for the virus.

"I am not interested in making Greece the number one destination in Europe," Mitsotakis said. "I am interested in making Greece the safest destination in Europe."

In Portugal, building confidence has been the introduction of hygiene certification to designate tourist facilities as "clean and safe,” similar to what Greece is requiring over objections from hoteliers some measures can’t be done.

"We've created a protocol between the health authorities, all the hotels, to create a special seal, clean and safe, to give everyone guarantees so that they can come and they'll be safe," Costa said. Some 14,000 businesses have received the seal and 15,000 employees have been trained, officials said.

Greek officials feared a drop of as much as 70 percent in the tourism sector that in 2019 saw more than 33 million people – three times the population – visit, helping speed a slow recovery from a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis.

Both countries are off to a slow start, with Lisbon's old town neighborhood of Alfama – usually packed with tourists on a sunny day – oddly quiet as an area that was gentrified starting now to reopen restaurants, shops and cafes.

"We were forced to close our store for about two months, the last time we closed was in 1977," said Miguel Clarinha, an owner and manager of Pasteis de Belem, a Lisbon institution that sells the country's famous Pasteis de Nata custard tarts.

He saids since reopening in mid-May, business has been between 15-20% of normal. The shop, he said, is selling about 4,000 tarts daily compared to the usual figure of 30,000. "We're hopeful of course but we also know this year is going to be a slow year," he said.

"Until there's a vaccine there'll be a virus," Costa said. "Initially we only had one way of protecting ourselves – it was to lock ourselves at home – now we know more and we know how to live with the virus in safety.”

Greece has some of the world’s best and safest beaches with room for people to spread out and Forbes magazine noted that in the battle for tourists that the famed island of Corfu was the second best spot for tourists this year in Europe.

“Many European countries are opening their borders and flights and hotels are also reopening now,” said the European Best Destinations Organization (EBD) which falls under the European Commission’s EDEN Network (European Destinations of Excellence,) working to promote sustainable tourism on the continent.

To help travelers who “after weeks of confinement want to travel to Europe but do not know where to travel and what safety measures are being taken in countries and regions,” EBD has unveiled a list of 20 destinations least affected by COVID-19.

These destinations benefit from proximity to hospitals and have a higher number of hospital beds per inhabitant than most EU countries, have implemented very specific protocols concerning hygiene in accommodations, restaurants and shops, and imposed measures such as the changing of air conditioning filters between each traveller stay, availability of masks and social distancing.

Of Corfu, EBD wrote that, “This paradisiacal Greek island is a perfect destination to recharge your batteries after this stressful period.”

Hoteliers on the island of Lefkas told CNN that the vast majority of questions from potential clients are about health and safety.

"People want to travel but they want to make sure they minimize exposure. They want to know that once they arrive at their final destination they will have space to social distance and feel safe," said Odysseas Christofides, owner of the Pavezzo Country Retreat.

Christofides estimates bookings to have dropped by 60% since this time last year. "We also have a lot of guests with valid bookings who don't know if they will need to cancel last minute because of travel restrictions and uncertainty about flights. It is a one step at a time year for all of us."

The health measures to persuade tourists it’s safe in Greece included installation of nearly 450 beds for COVID19 cases on popular islands and the hiring of nearly 700 additional staff. Eleven airplanes have also been transformed into futuristic-looking "transit capsules" that can be used for patients needing to be airlifted to intensive care units.

But, as Mitsotakis noted, even as he went to the Instagram favorite island of Santorini to announce tourism’s return, this will be "a different summer."

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