ATHENS – Technically still in an eased lockdown that includes a curfew, Greece will open on May 14 to tourists from select countries who are vaccinated or can show a negative Coronavirus test, getting the jump on other countries.
They won't face the prospect of being quarantined and the New Democracy government said it will allow outdoor dining as of May 3, lifting a ban that had kept restaurants closed for more than half the previous 12 months and removing a disincentive to travel.
Recognizing that people would be unlikely to come if they were restricted and couldn't find restaurants, travel within the country, reach islands or visit archaeological sites, the government is removing the barriers.
But they'll still face some health restrictions, the government counting on a mass return of visitors who couldn't come in 2020 as the pandemic was raging and international air traffic ground to a standstill.
The key market is the United States and the vast Greek-American diaspora of people eager to get back to their family homeland and with surveys showing Greece among the top destinations in the world for summer travel.
Tourists from the US, United Kingdom, Israel, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates are already allowed entry if they can they are free of the Coronavirus and rapid checks will still be carried out at entry points, said CNN.
Those who test positive will be put in special quarantine hotels and visitors must abide by rules requiring the wearing of masks, even if vaccinated, and keep a safe social distance from others.
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 in Greece on May 14. During the weeks ahead we will be making adjustments."
Besides Athens and the second-largest city of Thessaloniki, direct international flights are now allowed to some of Greece's most popular vacation destinations in Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu.
The tourism sector accounts for as much as 20 percent of the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 166.2 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and is the bigest employer with 25 percent of the workforce, more than a million jobs.
Israeli visitors testing negative or with vaccination certificates have been exempt from a one-week quarantine, but officials said other ongoing restrictions plus a recent surge in Greek cases had discouraged all but a few, the news site said.
Opening to visitors has been welcomed, especially on popular spots like the party island of Mykonos, a hedonist heaven where dancing on table tops and wild scenes abound in the summer.
Mayor Konstantinos Koukas had said revenues in 2020 were only 30 percent of the previous record in 2019 when the country was on a run of consecutive boom years bringing in big revenues.
Iraklis Zissimopoulos, CEO of the Semeli Hospitality Group, which includes hotels, bars and restaurants on the island, described the lifting of the quarantine restrictions as a symbolic move.
"It sends the message that Greece is sticking to its promise to fully open in May and as such it is welcome," he said. "We know it is going to be a slow start,” he told the news site.
Greece has also accelerated a slow-rolling vaccination program and trying to speed availability of self-tests, although health workers aren't required to be inoculated and 30 percent of the elderly have refused to do so.
Greece, starting with the smallest islands, has been moving to vaccinate all island residents to create oases free of COVID-19 as another lure for visitors to feel safe there and come.
"If all the locals are vaccinated in Mykonos, an island of about 10,000 then we will have a protective shield," said
But some countries like the UK still have restrictions in place preventing international travel, and Greece's rise in infections mean quarantine rules may apply to holidaymakers when they head home.
The travel industry and government don't expect an initial boom but hope for bookings to pick up through the summer as vaccinations increase around the world, especially in the United States.
Roxane Seewoester, a 25-year-old wedding planner at Golden Apple Weddings in Rhodes, a destination that normally receives over two million tourists annually, told CNN that the hopes there are that people will come.
"We work a lot with people from the United States and Australia," she said. "It's a long way to travel. People need months to plan. We hope they will be able to come and celebrate their special moment with their loved ones and that we will all be able to get on with our lives."