Frantic to get the economy going after a long lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 closed businesses – some for good – Greece's gamble to open its borders to tourists, including from heavily-infected countries, has come up snake eyes.
After the international airports in Athens and Thessaloniki opened July 1 and then regional airports a first wave of tourists from countries with records as similarly safe as Greece in holding down the number of cases and fatalities was allowed in.
That was followed on July 15 with allowing those from the hard-hit United Kingdom to come in – but not the lucrative United States market nor Russia – and the initial figures show people reluctant to travel and not wanting to face tests or possible quarantines.
Even worse, the travelers spiked cases in Greece although not to an alarming rate and with the transmission level still low, but the worry is deep both by tourists and Greeks who've been trying to return to a near-normal life but also face new restrictions.
Tourism is the country's biggest revenue driver, bringing in as much as 18-20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 174.88 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and in 2019 saw 34 million tourists spend some 18 billion euros ($20.62 billion.)
That could fall as much as 70 percent this year and with two-thirds of hotels fearing huge losses or even closings between the lack of customers and the cost of implementing health protocols widely defied or ignored across the country.
“Even the few foreign travelers who have begun to return have triggered new chains of coronavirus infections, while the economic benefits have so far been muted,” reported Nektaria Stamouli for the news site Politico.
As of July 20 there had been only 194 deaths and 3,983 cases but since opening to tourists there have been 530 infections and epidemiologists whose advice brought a lockdown saving lives are growing concerned.
"We all knew, both we and our scientists and experts, that with the opening of our borders we would have a partial increase in cases," said Greek Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias. But, he added, "the economy and tourism must survive."
Savvas Pagonakis, who owns a hotel on the island of Rhodes, told the site that opening was necessary or the industry would face near-collapse, but so far the tourists aren't coming in the numbers expected.
“Unfortunately we have to do it, because it looks like the danger from coronavirus will be smaller than the danger from its effects on the economy,” he said. “We will have to choose Coronavirus or hunger.” Or death.
He said initial bookings of 30 percent of capacity have dropped by half already with the summer rapidly waning, at least for the prospects of luring people afraid to leave their countries or risk international travel.
THE UNEASY LIFE
"EasyJet resumed with six direct flights per week and this has dropped now to three,” he said of a major low-budget carrier that has links to Greece's islands, while hotels on mainland are showing about 25 percent bookings, owners reported.
In June, air passenger arrivals to Greece were down by 93 percent to just 588,186 from nearly 8.4 million in 2019, expected as the airports weren't fully open to commercial traffic at the time but even since July 1 the arrivals are low.
Pagonakis said there will be a crippling ripple effect in the winter as people and sectors relying on summer tourist to get through the rest of the year won't have the money to make it, including farmers supplying hotels who are tearing up their fields instead.
It's not just air travelers bringing the virus despite random tests aimed at catching it, but drivers from countries close to Greece, especially Serbia and Balkan countries that are proving a big risk.
All travelers crossing Greece's land border were required to have negative test results from the past 72 hours and officials are clamping down on seasonal migrant workers who pick crops and the government has banned local religious celebrations and put restrictions on beaches, essentially impossible to enforce.
Masks were made mandatory in many public places, including for workers and customers in supermarkets but that's being ignored despite fines of up to 150 euros ($178.80) for violators with no report if any were issued.
“When we opened the borders we did not expect such a strong presence of the virus in the Balkans, back then the cases were low, which is another indication of how volatile things are,” Professor of Microbiology Alkis Vatopoulos told the site. “We also observe that public compliance with health safety rules in the country is very relaxed.”
The government says it is prepared to reimpose restrictions if necessary and Kikilias said ministers are working on "a Plan B with local lockdowns, if needed,” but that the country could not go back into full lockdown.
"No one should be locked inside. We should enjoy our country. Its beauties. Its seas. We should go to the beach, but avoid crowds. It is possible and it is a necessary condition that we must all respect," he added.
The Greek islands are especially reliant on tourists but even the most popular places, such as the hedonist heaven of Mykonos aren't showing results in terms of arrivals or spending even though champagne there can go up to 1000 euros ($1145.35) a bottle.
Vasilis Theodorou, owner of the bar Pelican on the island, said the bars and beaches that are usually packed with sun worshippers and bikini-clad girls dancing on tabletops are almost empty.
Tourism might be down by as much as 80% this year, “so we’re waiting for the 20%, and we’re happy,” Theodorou said.
“No matter how much we wish for it and want it, it won’t be more than that," he said. "We expect that tourists from central Europe will come first, and hopefully Americans at a later stage. They are our best customers.”
WHERE'D EVERYBODY GO?
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis earlier acknowledged he was crossing his fingers and hoping for the best both in arrivals and keeping down the COVID-19 cases for an unprecedented year scientifically and economically.
He kicked off the tourist season from the most popular of Greece's islands, the Instagram favorite of Santorini, against the backdrop of the famous sunset over the dormant Caldera volcano islet nearby, talking to journalists.
“We don’t know the real impact of (a truncated tourist season) on GDP,” he said, “A lot will depend on whether people feel comfortable to travel and whether we can project Greece as a safe destination.”
Mykonos Mayor Konstantinos Koukas told the Associated Press that islanders feel prepared and have clear government guidelines.
“We want to open back up and we are heading into the 2020 season with optimism,” he said. “But we are fully aware that … (it) will be nothing like the season in 2019 — and hopefully nothing like the season in 2021.”
Mykonos and Santorini would by this mid-summer point be spilling over with high-rolling tourists and cruise ships and people cheek-by-jowl competing for table and bar space and to gawk at celebrities who've made Greece their fave.
This year, rented cars fill fenced-off lots, and most stores remain padlocked. Stray cats and the island’s mascot, a large, light pink pelican, roam the streets for company.
Mosaic artist Irene Syrianou has kept her workshop open despite the lack of customers. “We watch the news and hope for the best,” she says, cracking pieces of marble into chips with a hammer.
“Nearly all my customers are American, whether it’s buying pieces of art, making orders online, or attending classes I give during the summer,” she said, before adding with a chuckle: “So it’s going to be a tough year. But I’m an artist and I’ve gone hungry before.”
Kikilias also insisted that a safety net had been built for the islands — with connections to each other and to mainland hospitals for testing and health evacuations. Doctors and support staff will be deployed with the help of more than 100 mobile units in cars and speed boats. The Health Ministry will also have 11 futuristic-looking “transit capsules” for patients heading to intensive care facilities.
Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis, once Greece’s top official for tax and revenues, said that the country is determined to support its tourism industry.
“We’re sending a clear message to the world's traveling public that we won’t take a step back, either in health safeguards or in opening up the country.”
And as Mitsotakis noted, taking a cue from the old Brooklyn Dodgers slogan after losing out on the World series, there's always next year. “Hopefully in 2021, we’ll have a vaccine; 2021 will be a bumper year,” Mitsotakis said.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)