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Greece bets big on return of travelers

greece People sit at a cafe in Thiseio in Athens on May 3, 2021, as restaurants and cafes in Greece open after six months of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic
People sit at a cafe in Thiseio in Athens on May 3, 2021, as restaurants and cafes in Greece open after six months of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: AFP)
Greece has reopened to many overseas visitors, including from the United States, jumping ahead of most of its European neighbors in restarting tourism, even as the country’s hospitals remain full and more than three-quarters of Greeks are still unvaccinated.اضافة اعلان

It’s a big bet, but given the importance of tourism to the Greek economy — the sector accounts for one quarter of the country’s workforce and more than 20 percent of gross domestic product — the country’s leaders are eager to roll out the welcome mat.

And although the US State Department recently added Greece to its long list of countries with the designation “Level 4: Do Not Travel,” Greek officials maintain that — with social distancing measures and testing protocols, alongside the warming weather — tourism in the country will be safe, for visitors and residents alike.

Pushing the timeline

In easing its border restrictions, Greece has jumped ahead of a broader European Union reopening to tourists from outside the bloc, but the country is not alone in pushing the timeline. Among European Union members, Croatia and Cyprus have also already opened to vaccinated and COVID-negative tourists. And French President Emmanuel Macron last week announced that if the country’s epidemiological situation allows, the country will open June 9 to all non-EU visitors, provided that they carry a “health passport,” details of which have yet to be announced. Outside the EU but still within Europe, Iceland, Montenegro, and Serbia have already taken steps to ease their border restrictions.

“We welcome a common position” on restarting tourism in the EU, Greece’s tourism minister, Harry Theoharis, said in an interview. “All we’re saying is that this has to be forthcoming now. We cannot wait until June.”

According to the current rules, visitors arriving from the United States, the EU, Britain, South Korea, Australia and a handful of other countries are now allowed quarantine-free entry into Greece, on the condition that travelers provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test taken up to 72 hours before their arrival. Arriving visitors may also be subject to random, obligatory rapid tests at the airport; anyone with a positive result will be required, along with their traveling companions, to quarantine at a Greek hotel for at least 10 days, at the expense of the Greek government.

The new terms of entry were applied to tourists from the United States and several other countries as of April 19; they are expected to be extended to all visitors May 14.

“A lot of people are still in a ‘wait and see’ mode,” said Chantel Kyriakopoulou-Beuvink, director of Natural Greece, a tour operator based in Athens that works primarily with clients in the United States and Europe. She noted that several bookings for May tours had been canceled, although most clients had asked for their payments to be put toward future trips. She added that reservations have already come through for summer and fall tours, but many potential clients are still holding off on booking.

“They’re interested, but they’re still waiting for more clarity,” she said.

They may not have too long to wait. The summer ferry schedules to the Greek islands have recently been published — earlier than usual, Kyriakopoulou-Beuvink noted. She added that the ferry services have increased compared with last summer, and that the Sporades Islands — which include Alonissos, Skiathos, and Skopelos — were particularly well served. All ferry passengers will be required to complete a health-status questionnaire before boarding, and occupancy will be kept to about half of the normal numbers, although that limit may be adjusted as the public health situation evolves.

Expect social distancing, masks, and sanitizer

On the ferries or otherwise, anyone who decides to make the trip to Greece should expect to see plenty of public health measures in force.

Greece has been in various stages of lockdown since November, with residents subject to a curfew and limits on movement within the country. Shops, schools, and cultural institutions have been forced to close, while restaurants and bars have been limited to takeout only.

The restrictions gutted the lively cafe culture in Athens, where the past winter was even quieter than usual, said Georgia Nakou, a political and economic analyst for media outlet MacroPolis. But compliance with the rules has slackened as the weather has warmed, and many Greeks have begun congregating in large numbers in the squares of central Athens. Everyone, it seems, is ready for a break.

“People know that they’re going to be released, and they’re already mentally partying,” Nakou said. While Greece’s lockdown restrictions are due to be lifted by the time the country fully opens to tourists May 14, visitors should still expect to encounter social distancing measures, the country’s tourism minister said. Tables will be widely spaced at restaurants; lounge chairs will be farther apart on the beach; masks may be obligatory on some city streets; and hand sanitizer will be in plentiful supply.

Open-air archaeological sites such as the Acropolis in Athens have already reopened to the public, with masks required of all visitors. Museums, including the National Archaeological Museum and the Acropolis Museum, will reopen May 15 with social distancing measures that are still being determined, a spokeswoman from the tourism ministry said.

Hotels are also subject to public health protocols, including weekly rapid testing of staff and mandatory mask wearing in common-use areas. The minister stressed that all social distancing rules and other public health measures will apply to visitors and residents alike.

Protecting Greek citizens from the coronavirus is a priority, the tourism minister said, but so is shielding them from the devastating effects of a prolonged economic decline. And last year’s plunge in tourism numbers hit the country hard: The national economy shrank by 8.2% in 2020, making Greece among the worst-hit countries in Europe. The tourism sector took the brunt of the blow: In 2020, Greece’s revenue from foreign tourism fell to a quarter of the more than 18 billion euros (nearly $22 billion) registered the year before.

“The last year felt like a nuclear explosion in our society,” said Kostas Tzilialis, co-owner of Locomotiva Cooperativa, a cafe and bookshop in central Athens. Tzilialis, also a worker there, estimated that before the pandemic, tourists accounted for up to 40 percent of daytime guests at the cafe. The business has managed to survive the pandemic by offering takeout service, processing online book orders and receiving some government support — but it hasn’t been easy, he said, adding that many of his friends have suffered severe financial and psychological problems over the past year. On the reopening of tourism, he thought the government didn’t have a choice. “Unfortunately, after more than 10 years of economic hardship, tourism and food is our only industry,” Tzilialis said. “We don’t produce cars or machines. So we have to open our industry right now. Let’s hope that people will be careful and the vaccines will protect us.”

However many people end up traveling to Greece this summer, it’s clear that this year’s peak tourist season will be unlike any other.

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