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Economy

Mocked No More, US Tourists Welcomed Back to Greece

ΑΤΗΕΝS — Greeks often moan about the number of tourists, including Americans, who had flocked to the country during a record run of foreign visitor years, the travelers overrunning archaeological sites and islands.

Not anymore.

After tourists essentially vanished during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic that saw international air traffic grind to near-halt, essentially shutting down hotels and laying off hundreds of thousands of workers, they are being welcomed happily.

Asked how much he misses having Americans around, Managing Director Markos Chaidemenos told NBC News, smiling: “You have no idea.”

Americans have already started booking — “big time,” he said, reserving rooms well in advance for later this summer although June bookings are low, with Greece rapidly trying to vaccinate all the residents of key islands.

With the European Union indicating Americans could come if they are vaccinated or free of the Coronavirus, Greece had already begun luring them, ahead of other countries scrambling to catch up.

Even before the EU announcement, Chaidemenos, 33, said the hotels’ first US guests in more than a year started arriving, as soon as Greece reopened this month. “Travel agents are swamped with requests,” he added.

Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis, who went on a road show to the US to advertise Greece is open to safe visitors tweeted that, "Greece is offering what people need, calm and care-free moments on the road towards normality."” after it began allowing them to come on May 15.

After being nearly empty in 2020 despite being one of the world's most popular islands, Santorini is seeing them come again, slowly filling the fabulously expensive boutique accommodations on the cliff side of Oia.

The Wall Street Journal jumped in with a report on the awaiting of the Americans, especially on Santorini, which depends on foreigners, many from the United States who see it as an idyllic post card Instagram Tik Tok spot.

Island residents lined up to get their vaccinations as the Greek government wants to convince people the country is safe, putting on a campaign that says Greece is All You Want.

Argyris Souanis, 32, said he was lucky to be able to be vaccinated where he lives on Santorini because the EU's distribution program has been a near debacle, the bloc also moving too slowly to enact Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' idea for a digital vaccine certificate to save the summer for many countries.

Souanis supplies tourist souvenirs to shops all over Santorini, the newspaper said, noting his business was just about totally shut down in 2020, cruise ships also barred from going there, an essential route for tourists.

He didn’t sell a single one of the 20,000 Santorini calendars for the year 2020 that he had printed. “I had to throw them all away,” he said.

He hopes the 2021 business will be far better, with Greece expecting it could be between 50-75 percent of the record 2019 season because of vaccinations around the world, and Greek-Americans returning in big numbers.

That's especially crucial on islands such as Santorini, “The economy here is based 100 percent on tourism. We all agree there is no other choice," he said.

When the doors opened, the people were willing to come, as the government eased an already lenient lockdown and allowed outdoor dining at restaurants and opened archaeological and cultural sites, including the magical Acropolis and Parthenon.

“I feel really alive and good because it has been such a hard and long year because of COVID,” Victoria Sanchez, a 22-year-old student on holiday from the Czech Republic.

“I feel again alive,” she said, as she strolled near the Roman Agora in downtown Athens, the Reuters news agency reported.

“I’m finally here,” said Rebecca, a tourist in Athens from Florida, who declined to give her last name. “I’ve been waiting two years – two years with the COVID.”

Greece relies on tourism for as much as 20 percent of its annual ;Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 164.33 billion euros ($200.3 billion) but there were only 7 million visitors in 2020 compared to the record 33 million the year before.

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