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Letter from Athens: Greece - The Tourists are Coming! The Tourists are Coming!

Αssociated Press

A passenger wearing a face mask sits outside the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, in Athens on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

There aren't big signs of it yet but Frini Spanaki, director of a company that owns the boutique hotel 18 Micon Str. in the trendy hip area of Psirri in Athens, says people crazy to travel to Greece will be coming this spring and summer.

"We have bookings mostly from mid-May onwards, the majority from the UK, U.S., Israel, France, Denmark, and Belgium, with 99 percent of them on a flexible basis," she told CNN, another news site jumping on the go Greece bandwagon as the antidote to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I believe Athens is a safe destination," she said. "Safeguarding the health and safety of visitors has now become ingrained in the culture of all sectors. There is no reason anyone should hesitate to book a holiday in Athens or on the islands,” she said.

That's just what the New Democracy government is counting on as it has already allowed visitors from the European Union and nearly a dozen countries to come – with proof of being vaccinated or a negative coronavirus test.

That's good news for Greece which is getting the jump on other countries in readying for a general opening to tourism on May 15, but bad news to the anti-vaxxers and Trumpians who will find themselves unable to leave the United States.

Like the honeysuckle in the air in the spring here, you can almost smell the hope that's replaced fear and desperation in the tourism industry, and among restaurateurs, who will be allowed to open for outside dining on May 3.

That was a move that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis – who's rolling the dice in betting that people will pour into the country and not spread the virus – had to make because no one was going to come if they had to stay in a hotel room.

The bloom isn't showing yet, even around the Acropolis, but the hope is not just vaccinations and self-tests but the tractor beam attraction of Greece in the spring will replace the terror about COVID-19. The big bet is that tourists will be here, led by a cavalcade of Greek-Americans deprived of seeing their family homeland.

Greece's vaccination campaign had been woefully slow, relying on the cumbersome ineptitude of the Eunuch Union that couldn't get the doses bought and distributed after the United Kingdom's AstraZeneca (AZ) didn't deliver.

That, ironically, has turned into better news because now the EU has moved toward buying enough from the team of the U.S. company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, along with the Massachusetts firm Moderna, to have enough for everyone in the bloc's 27 countries at some point.

Health experts said that, to be effective, 70 percent of Greece's population of 10.7 million, or about 7.49 million people, needed both of the two shots of the vaccines – one if Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is used, a long way off.

Fears of rare blood clots have scared people off AZ and J&J and less than 8 percent of Greece's population has been fully vaccinated – unlike the tourists coming who already are – but who will have to abide by lenient lockdown measures.

Those have mostly been ignored or defied by Greeks, apart from wearing masks which has become so commonplace they've turned into fashion statements, and seeing someone not wearing one is odd indeed.

No one is really staying safe social distances in areas where people gather, such as tourist spots, and the government gave up any idea of trying to corral wild parties by the young in public squares in Athens, fearing a repeat of a riot that overwhelmed squads of police earlier in the spring as they tried to enforce health restrictions.

Mina Agnos, founder and President of inbound destination management company Travelive, told CNN that holiday reservations for Greece from her clients, 70 percent of whom are North American, are picking up fast.

"We've had a lot of early bookings, especially for August and September. I think September will be peak season this year," she said.

"There has been a shift this week after the announcement that Greece is reopening. It looks like we'll have a good amount of travelers coming from the U.S. this year, particularly since they couldn't visit last year,” she said.

The U.S. tourism marketing agency Sojern, which uses artificial intelligence to study tourists choices, said Greece is the favored destination, particularly the gritty allure of Athens as well as the islands of Rhodes, Kos, and Kefalonia – and the town of Rethymno on Crete.

A number of smaller islands in the Aegean have seen all their residents vaccinated in a trial to create COVID-19-free oases that will be a magnet for visitors who want to shed their worries along with their clothes for bathing suits and sit on beaches instead of being up locked in their homes or apartments.

Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis told CNN that the country "is taking these baby steps, the start of a gradual opening process that will lead to a full opening of tourism … during the weeks ahead we will be making adjustments."

He went to the United States to make a personal pitch about Greece's safety but he didn't have to persuade Greek-Americans, and a number of airlines, including Delta, United and American, added direct flights to Athens, some nearly full in early July.

So come to Greece. Everyone is waiting.