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Travel

Island Hopping Hoping Greece’s Big COVID-19 Tourism Gambit

March 14, 2021

ATHENS – It could take all of 2021 and maybe longer to inoculate Greece’s population against COIVID-19, too late to save the summer tourism season, so the plan is to start with smaller islands and move between them with vaccines.

The New Democracy government hopes that strategy, to literally create islands where the Coronavirus isn’t present, will lure visitors to restore tourism after a disastrous 2020 when the pandemic raged and people stayed away.

The thinking, said POLITICO in a feature, is that moving from small island to small island to bigger islands will spread the aura of impunity against the dreaded diseases and create oases of serenity.

Greece plans to open to tourists on May 15, even as a slow-rolling vaccination campaign’s schedule indicates that by then the program will only then be reaching those under 60 years old.

Tourism Minister Haris Theocharis said people who can prove they’ve been vaccinated, have negative tests or antibodies showing they recovered would be allowed to enter although people who can’t get vaccinations complained.

The government, along with mass vaccinations being stepped up, wants to insure residents of small islands and islets are given their coronavirus vaccinations so those locations can be marketed as COVID-free, the site said.

Those are the homes of many Greek-Americans locked out of traveling in 2020 during lockdowns and eager to return, the government just as happy to have them and expecting a wave of tourists from the United States.

Officials said it wouldn’t make any sense to keep sending medical teams back and forth to the same islands to administer doses to different age groups to those on the islands so are inoculating their entire populations.

Fournoi, Chalki, Symi, Ereikousa and dozens of other tiny islets with fewer than 1,000 residents in the Aegean and Ionian seas have been targeted by the authorities, the report.

Kastellorizo, the country's most remote island, located on the easternmost edge of the Dodecanese, was the first place in Greece to have its entire adult population vaccinated, all 500.

“Pretty much everyone from 20 to 94 years old has been vaccinated. It makes us feel free and more optimistic about ourselves, about our lives, about the people around us,”Deputy Mayor Stratis Amygdalos told the site.

“We can see the reverse trend from the same period last year,” he said. “Last March we were starting to give back some advance payments (to people who had booked to stay on the island,) now we have some calls for potential reservations,” people almost desperate to vacation, especially in Greece.

Tourism accounts for as much as 20 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 167.57 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and in 2019 saw some 33 million people visit.

It also accounts for nearly 20 percent of the entire workforce, including seasonal hires, the sector devastated by the pandemic seeing hotels closed and workers laid off, continued during a third lockdown of non-essential businesses.

The World Travel and Tourism Council said Greece’s tourism revenues fell from 18 billion euros ($21.52 billion) in 2019 to only 4.28 billion euros ($5.12 billion) in 2020 as the economy contracted 8.2 percent.

The number of tourists was down by 76.5 percent to just 7.4 million in 2020, according to the Greek Tourism Confederation Institute (INSETE).

“The only thing one can say with certainty is that this year will be better than 2020,” Theocharis told POLITICO “We managed last year, under much more difficult circumstances, to open and keep the necessary balance. This summer, with more tools and data at our disposal and with the confidence of the vaccination program, we will be able to achieve something much better.”

The European Union has been slow to accept Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ idea for COVID-19 vaccination certificates but said it would, although hasn’t moved to speed it, adding worry about the summer.

THE FAST LANE

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said earlier this month that the Commission wants to restart travel within the EU and beyond with what it calls a “Digital Green Certificate.”

Mitsotakis put the idea for a vaccination certificate to the EU in January, for “facilitating the freedom of movement of persons who have been vaccinated against COVID-19,” and give them a fast lane at airports.

But Theocharis said the process is moving too slowly, typical of the sluggest EU bureaucracy that often moves at a snail’s pace where officials seek consensus to avoid anyone bristling about anything.

“If Europe continues to move slowly, it risks losing a great opportunity to show its global leadership,” he said. “We have to move as fast as possible. I don't think it's a technical issue, there should be political will from all the countries for this to happen as soon as possible.”

 Theocharis said the European proposal is compatible with the Greek plan.

“It answers all queries one can have, it doesn't exclude anyone: PCR tests, vaccines or antibodies are included. It is done carefully so that it doesn't raise any privacy concerns. Its multiple options allow someone who doesn't want to say he has been vaccinated to get a PCR test. It secures one of the main freedoms of the European Union, free movement,” the minister said.

Not waiting for the EU, Greece made a deal with Israel to allow safe tourists travel between their countries and Greece is moving to make similar agreements with the United Kingdom, a key market, as well as Serbia.

Theoharis said May 14-15 is still the target and that, “We are relatively certain … that this date is safe, having the good weather and the vaccination progress as allies,” but tourism businesses will have to adhere to strict health protocols.

It could be longer for nightclubs and bars, a major draw on hedonist hotspots like Mykonos and other islands such as world-favorite Santorini, to reopen because they proved superspreaders before being shut temporarily.

Noting Mykonos’ reputation for defying tax payments and rules including health measures, Theoharis said in 2020 “the areas where parties were taking place were those that created all the trouble,” but were allowed to.

The government said tourism workers will be given priority for vaccinations although it wasn’t said if that would include over the elderly and those with multiple or underlying conditions who are the most susceptible.

But Mitsotakis, trying to balance saving lives against the economy, has already said he will tilt toward helping businesses to get them going again, their workers needing to be inoculated to make people feel it’s safe to come.

Theoharis dismissed critics who said Greece’s decision to allow tourists in July in 2020 had prolonged the pandemic and brought additional lockdowns, the health crisis worsening even now.

“Greek experts estimate the impact of tourism in spreading the virus at 3 percent and figures show that we didn't have the second wave in the middle of the summer, but a week later than the Northern European countries,” he said. “After all, even countries like Israel that haven't opened for tourism had the second wave in the middle of the summer,” he said.

Even if Greece reopens almost fully it won’t be at the same level as a consecutive run of record years that ended with a whimper in 2020, estimates that tourism revenues at their most this year would be only half as much.

“Figures do not add up for our survival, even under the best scenario,” Grigoris Tasios, President of the Greek Federation of Hoteliers and owner of a hotel in Halkidiki told POLITICO.

“It would still be a 50 percent drop, after an 80 percent drop in 2020. I'm afraid that we will need to have an internal bailout in the tourism sector from 2022 to 2025,” he added.

In any case, he said there won’t be a flood of people, just a trickle before June but believes it could pick up as the summer becomes a beacon for people of 

“Tourists know how to protect themselves by now," Tasios said. "They have had enough lockdowns in their countries and they will start assessing whether to book when we turn to the 'green' category,” he said, a color code indicating a country is safe to visit.

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