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COVID-19 Pandemic Drives Greek Tourism to 5-Star Customers

Αssociated Press

A worker cleans the balcony of a hotel room in Agios Prokopios village, on the Aegean island of Naxos, Greece, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

ATHENS -- Hoping to recoup brutal losses suffered during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, some tourist-related businesses in Greece, especially on islands, are looking the rich and people who prefer upscale accommodations.

In a feature, Al Jazeera noted the trend on Corfu and an offshore islet, Paxoi, where hotels and short-term rentals are targeting people with means who are willing to travel and spend.

Greece opened to tourists on May 15, those who are vaccinated or can show tests they're not infected or have recovered from the Coronavirus, but big market countries such as the United States and Germany are either limiting travelers or advising them Greece isn't safe yet.

That's despite Greece's accelerating vaccination program and the European Union designating the country as safe to visit although the bloc has not yet moved to adopt a so-called Digital Green Pass for safe travelers to move about.

The pandemic was so devastating in 2020 on Corfu during lockdowns and international air traffic grinding to a near-halt that only 28,000 people went there on cruise ships, down from 850,000 in the record year of 2019.

The 1.5 million visitors who arrived by air in 2019 dropped 75 percent, leading to many businesses shuttering and others barely hanging on and hoping more people will come this year, especially in the summer.

“A lot of shops have closed. I know of many instances, people who’ve been in business for years. I’ve no idea what happened to them. Perhaps they went back to their villages,” Eleni Chrysikopoulou, a tourist shop owner told Al Jazeera.

But she fears she will also be forced to close shop. “My only consolation is that … I don’t have young children,” she said.

In 2019, a record 31 million visitors came to Greece, making it the seventh most popular holiday destination worldwide. Last year’s tourist arrivals fell by three quarters, and so did revenue, to 4.3 billion euros ($5.26 billion) the report added.

As Greece has essentially mostly lifted an already lenient lockdown – to attract visitors – a curfew has been pushed back to 12:30 a.m. to benefit restaurants who until June 1 can only serve customers outside, masks still required.

Greece made a move to get the tourists as the EU sat on its hands and other countries dithered about what to do.

“We saw that there was a clear lack of leadership and we needed to provide this kind of leadership by providing a safe framework for others to copy and for thought processes to mature,” Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis told Al Jazeera.

“There’s a ‘Catch 22’ situation that we can easily fall into – we wait for the other country to take a step and they wait for us. So by actually removing unilaterally some of those barriers, we allow the other countries to make some decisions based on what we have decided.”

“This year, we hope to reach 45 percent of 2019 income. And that’s the good case scenario,” said Spyros Chalikiopoulos, President of the travel agents’ association on Corfu told the site. “We hope to reach 2019 figures in 2022,” he added.

Greece has the fifth-fastest vaccination rate in the EU and said the residents of 85 islands will be vaccinated by the end of June, anticipating a summer swell, with airlines adding more direct flights to Athens.

“(This) is a very important weapon in our hands so that we can be a safe destination, which is our number one issue,” said Babis Voulgaris, President of the Corfu hoteliers’ association.

His family owns one five-star hotel and is building another. “Half the luxury hotels have been built in the last 15 years, so there is a trend towards quality tourism. That’s our goal now,” said Halikiopoulos.