ATHENS – During the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic it seemed like it might never happen but tourists from most countries are now allowed into Greece, which has relaxed health measures, and boy, are they ever pouring in.
In a feature, the British newspaper The Guardian noted how the arrivals are coming sooner than expected, spring arriving after a chilly delay, and the touristy parts of Athens bustling, and archeological sites and islands filling.
And after being shut out since 2019, people are sitting together and eating at restaurants again, which are near capacity in popular areas, and no sign that those who aren’t unvaccinated are being checked despite a requirement.
“It might be April but Athens is alive to the sound of tourists,” wrote the newspaper’s long-time correspondent, Helena Smith, who knows more about the country than many locals.
One worker, Stelios Ballas, who keeps watch over 1st-Century BC ruins at the Roman Agora is in his 50’s now and said he can’t remember so many people coming so early and the place being so busy.
“These past few weeks have been something else,” he said from his guard’s cabin. “I talk to some of them and they seem to be from everywhere. The thing is, do they have money and are they willing to spend it?”
They are are restaurants, especially in the Plaka section of Athens, the capital’s oldest commercial spot and a tourist magnet filled with curio shops and those peddling Greek favorites.
More than 33 million people – three times the country’s population – came in the record year of 2019 that now seems like a distant memories when people let the good times roll, without masks, vaccines and social distancing.
“If it goes on like this we’ll be talking about a brilliant year,” said Vassilis Stathokostopoulos, who runs the recently upgraded all-day bistro Ydria. “People are not only coming, it’s clear that after everything we’ve all been through, they want to have a good time. And for that they’re willing to dig deep into their pockets,” he said. And indeed they are.
That’s what Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his New Democracy government are counting on in hopes of accelerating a recovery from the pandemic that’s being forgotten despite dozens of deaths a day, people inured to the tragedies.
Tourism is the country’s biggest revenue engine, has accounted for nearly one million workers at its peak and brings in as much as 18-20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 185.47 billion euros ($200.3 billion.)
Greece is seen as perhaps the most desired tourist stop on the planet this year and major luxury resorts are popping up like crocuses in the spring, catering to the super-rich who want all their needs satisfied immediately.
CHANGE OF SIGNS
This comes some 12 years after a brutal economic crisis hit, requiring 326 billion euros ($352.06 billion) that will take decades to repay and came with harsh austerity measures targeting workers, pensioners and the poor.
Then came COVID.
Like a wraith in the night, it fell over the world with a shroud of fear and death, locked down international travel and made it seem as if no one might be coming for years, and spirits sank.
The record tourist year of 2019 brought in 18.2 billion euros ($19.65 billion) in revenues but that fell off a cliff the next year to only 4 billion euros ($4.32 billion) and 10 billion euros ($10.8 billion) in 2021.
Even soaring inflation and the fallout over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which saw European Unions bar Russian airlines and tourists, aren’t dimming spirits, people crazy to be happy again after seeing so much doom.
Cruise ships are going to be docking in bigger numbers too, with the Chinese management company COSCO turning the port of Piraeus into one of Europe’s busiest, and the country’s biggest ferry docking spot.
“All omens look positive,” Andreas Andreadis, a former tourism boss and chief executive of the phenomenally successful Sani/Ikos group of luxury resorts told the paper of the big comeback
“For a few weeks after the start of the war in Ukraine demand dropped but since the end of March it has picked up and is now excellent,” he said although the boom could be better if so many people still weren’t afraid to travel, he said.
Greece’s government said as of May 1 it won’t even require arrivals to have an EU Green Pass digital certificate and masks are coming off almost everywhere – they already are though – as of June 1.
“The season has begun earlier than ever before,” said Tourism Minister Vasilis Kikilias, with more major US airlines now offering direct flights to Athens. “It’s a vote of confidence in our country,” he said.
He also said that 765 cruise ships are lined up to anchor in ports around the country, with popular island destinations such as Mykonos, Kos and Corfu already drawing crowds.
Eugenios Vasilikos, the Vice-President of the Panhellenic Federation of Hoteliers, told the paper that, “It’s a fact borne out by every study that people don’t just want to travel, they need to travel. All the signs point to this being a very good year.” It will likely depend on if there are any more surprises out there.