ATHENS – Pushing up the calendar to kickstart an economy halted by the COVID-19 Coronavirus lockdown gradually being lifted, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the tourism season will start June 15, not July 1, and won’t include mass tests or quarantines.
Season hotels will open then and direct international flights to Greece’s popular destinations and islands will start on a staggered basis beginning July 1, with hopes that worldwide air traffic will pick up.
Greece is already seen as a preferred vacation spot because the New Democracy government’s early lockdown on March 23 held down the number of cases and deaths to among the lowest in the world among major countries hit.
There were fears that tourism, which in 2019 lured 33 million people and brought in 19 billion euros ($20.82 billion) as the biggest revenue engine, could fall off a cliff, losses as much as 70 percent being predicted.
Mitsotakis, wanting to balance health against a need to get the economy going again to prevent a near-total collapse, has hinged the recovery on convincing people it will be safe to visit Greece, with hotels and other establishments required to follow strict hygiene protocols.
But the call to tourists isn’t universal and will be limited at first to those from countries with similarly low records of cases and fatalities - except for the United Kingdom - which could mean that the crucial market of the United States will be on hold for a while.
As of May 21, Greece had 2,850 cases and only 166 deaths, numbers that Mitsotakis said - while lamenting the loss of lives - indicated the country had handled the pandemic and that tourists could feel comfortable visiting.
Mitsotakis said the country’s prompt response to the virus would be a “passport of safety, credibility and health” to attract visitors. “We will win the economy war just as we won the health battle,” he said.
“Let us face reality with courage: April and May was the nadir of tourism,” Mitsotakis said. “So whatever we achieve this year will be a profit.”
The tourism minister, Harry Theocharis, said a list of nations resuming flights to Greece would be announced by the end of May, noting that Athens would focus on reviving a travel front “from the Balkans to the Baltic.”
Mitsotakis said visitors would be subject to sample coronavirus testing and “our general health protocols will be adhered to, without them, however, overshadowing our bright sun or the natural beauties of Greece.
Theoharis said a list of countries from which visitors will be able to arrive in Greece will be announced before the end of May. The selection will be based on “epidemiological criteria” as determined by Greece's committee of experts dealing with the pandemic.
Some countries, however, might be excluded, depending on the situation with their coronavirus outbreaks, the minister said. Those countries would be closely watched, with a view to re-establishing direct flights when the situation allows but they weren’t named.
Those arriving will not be subject to mandatory quarantine or blanket testing of all arrivals, but Greek authorities will have the right to carry out sample testing, he said.
Theoharis outlined an operational plan being set in place to tackle any potential outbreaks at tourist destinations, including a designated doctor for each hotel, special quarantine areas and testing facilities on islands.
Mitsotakis noted that Greece has “managed to restrict the spread of the virus. ... We made our country an example to follow in the handling of the health crisis.”
The lockdown has dealt a severe blow to Greece’s economy, which has barely emerged from a brutal decade-long financial crisis that saw a quarter of gross domestic product wiped out. Tourism is a vital part of the economy, contributing around 20% of GDP, and authorities have been anxious to ensure the entire summer season isn’t lost.
Mitsotakis announced a reduction in consumer taxes on transport from 24% to 13% for five months, which will lead to cheaper boat, plane and bus tickets during the tourist season, as well as a cut on tax on coffee, soft drinks and open-air movie theater tickets.
The government's priority, he stressed, was maintaining jobs “and helping the sector's professionals prepare for their big comeback in 2021.”
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)