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Politics

Mitsotakis Says COVID-19 Safety Rules Won’t Bend for Tourism

SANTORINI. Despite fears they could bring a resurgence of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, tourists will start arriving in Greece on June 15 with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis trying to reassure them it's safe.

Eager to get the economy going after it was brought to a screeching halt when the virus hit in March and a lockdown was imposed before a single death, Greece wants tourists but the New Democracy government said safety rules will be enforced.

That's despite widespread defiance of social distancing and other health requiremens that has seen Greece return almost to pre-COVID normal levels and giant crowds continuing to gather on beaches, clubs and public areas.

Health officials are anxious that ignoring the health protocols combined with the first influx of tourists could be a deadly combination but the government said the country needs tourists, who are the biggest revenue source.

During a visit to Santorini, the country's most popular island that for years has been overwhelmed with tourists, Mitsotakis told reporters after he visited the general hospital that, “We have a crucial summer ahead of us and our intention is to welcome visitors without making any discounts on safety and security, obviously for the population and of course…of employees in the national healthcare system.” 

Greece is restarting international flights in a bid to salvage what's left of the summer season, the first arrivals from other countries with records as similarly successful in holding down the number of cases and deaths.

Archaeological sites have opened since May with the gradual phasing out of the lockdown requirements that began March 23 and kept people mostly at home and the country will open to all countries on July 1, although it's uncertain whether international air traffic will be in force and if people aren't afraid to come.

“We have made the best possible preparation. I am sure that everything will go well in the end but it is also very important to show this image of security and organization to visitors who will come to Greece in the summer,” he added.

Mitsotakis then visited the Minoan Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, which has reopened with safety measures in place.

Tourism is a crucial for the Greek economy, accounting for some 18 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 177.96 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and there were fears it could fall off as much as 70 percent, which would be devastating.

More than 33 million people visited in 2019, continuing in a successive run of record years, bolstered by celebrities going to islands and social media such as Instagram showing off the country's features.

The season is starting so late though that the results won't be known for some time. “We don't know the real impact of (a truncated tourist season) on GDP," Mitsotakis said about the uncertainties,” said Kathimerini and media reports.

"A lot will depend on whether people feel comfortable to travel and whether we can project Greece as a safe destination,” he said, the government having won plaudits for its handling of the pandemic that ranked 34th in the world.

Speaking against the backdrop of Santorini's caldera, the lagoon formed after the  eruption of the island's dormant volcano, some 3,600 years ago, Mitsotakis went on a all-out sales pitch promoting local products and Greece as a year-round destination.

Asked if opening the counjtry to visitors might jeopardize the government's efforts to contain the pandemic, Mitsotakis said that, "There is no risk-ree approach … we are doing the best we can" and emphasized that the economy will operate under "very robust guidelines" enforcing social distancing and other measures, such as mandatory wearing of masks in transport as welll as by all catering personnel.

"I believe the worst (of the pandemic) is over and I don't think a full lockdown will be necessary … in case of a localized outbreak, we have the medical and civil protection infrastructure in place to tackle it safely and efficiently," Mitsotakis said.

As of June 13, Greece had 3,112 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 183 fatalities and in the run-up to the international airport opening – the only one allowed for now, with regional airports still shut – some 4,000 tests were conducted on all arriving passengers and only two tested positive, both asymptomatic.

Te Thessaloniki Airport will also open in Greece's second largest city and testing will vary depending on the profile of the country of origin with passengers from relatively safe destinations randomly, while, in other flights, all passengers will be tested.

Tourism is especially important for Greece: some 350,000 jobs depend directly on it, and about double that number indirtectly, Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis told the Associated Press a week ago.

"Hopefully in 2021, we'll have a vaccine; 2021 will be a bumper year," Mitsotakis said with Greece heavily dependent on tourism for money.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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