Minister hopes country can open up again from mid May.
ATHENS — Greece is thinking small — literally — when it comes to reopening to tourists this summer.
With the country desperate to let holidaymakers back in, it’s making sure residents of small islands and islets are given their coronavirus vaccinations so those locations can be marketed as COVID-free.
There are also practical reasons for giving small islands priority when it comes to vaccination, as officials say it would make little sense to send medical teams back and forth to administer doses to different population groups over time.
Fournoi, Chalki, Symi, Ereikousa and dozens of other tiny islets with fewer than 1,000 residents in the Aegean and Ionian seas have been targeted by the authorities. Kastellorizo, the country’s most remote island, located on the easternmost edge of the Dodecanese, was the first place in Greece to have its entire adult population vaccinated — all 500 of them.
“Pretty much everyone from 20 to 94 years old has been vaccinated. It makes us feel free and more optimistic about ourselves, about our lives, about the people around us,” said the island’s deputy mayor Stratis Amygdalos.
“We can see the reverse trend from the same period last year,” he said. “Last March we were starting to give back some advance payments [to people who had booked to stay on the island], now we have some calls for potential reservations.”
Greece was battered economically by the coronavirus, as tourism accounts for more than a fifth of its economic output and provides employment for about a quarter of the workforce, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Tourism revenue plunged to €4.28 billion in 2020 from €18 billion in 2019 and the economy as a whole shrank by 8.2 percent, putting pressure on a country coming out of a decade-long recession and that has one of the world’s heaviest debt burdens. The number of tourists was down by 76.5 percent to just 7.4 million in 2020, according to the Greek Tourism Confederation Institute (INSETE).
“The only thing one can say with certainty is that this year will be better than 2020,” Tourism Minister Harry Theocharis told POLITICO in an interview. “We managed last year, under much more difficult circumstances, to open and keep the necessary balance. This summer, with more tools and data at our disposal and with the confidence of the vaccination program, we will be able to achieve something much better.”
Have certificate, will travel
The Greek government wants a deal to be struck at EU level on a vaccination certificate that people can use to show they’ve had the jab. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said earlier this month that the Commission wants to restart travel within the EU and beyond with what it calls a “Digital Green Certificate.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis put the idea for a vaccination certificate to the Commission in January, for “facilitating the freedom of movement of persons who have been vaccinated against COVID-19.”
But Theocharis said the process is moving too slowly.
“If Europe continues to move slowly, it risks losing a great opportunity to show its global leadership,” he said. “We have to move as fast as possible. I don’t think it’s a technical issue, there should be political will from all the countries for this to happen as soon as possible.”
However, Theocharis said the European proposal is compatible with the Greek plan.
“It answers all queries one can have, it doesn’t exclude anyone: PCR tests, vaccines or antibodies are included. It is done carefully so that it doesn’t raise any privacy concerns. Its multiple options allow someone who doesn’t want to say he has been vaccinated to get a PCR test. It secures one of the main freedoms of the European Union, free movement,” the minister said.
Even though Greece remains in lockdown, it signed a deal last month with Israel that will allow people vaccinated against the coronavirus to move freely between the two countries once travel restarts. Athens is working on more bilateral agreements, including with the United Kingdom and Serbia.
But once travel can restart, which Greece hopes will be as soon as May 14 — “we are relatively certain … that this date is safe, having the good weather and the vaccination progress as allies,” Theocharis said — it won’t be business as usual.
Hotels and tourism businesses will have to follow strict hygiene rules and maintain social distancing, and staff will have to be tested twice a month.
It is not clear when and under which conditions nightclubs and bars will reopen, but Theocharis said that last year “the areas where parties were taking place were those that created all the trouble.”
The government says that those working in the tourism sector will be given priority when it comes to vaccination, after the inoculation of vulnerable groups is completed. However, there is no date set for that to begin.
Theocharis also dismissed criticism that tourism was to blame for the country’s second wave last autumn.
“Greek experts estimate the impact of tourism in spreading the virus at 3 percent and figures show that we didn’t have the second wave in the middle of the summer, but a week later than the Northern European countries,” he said. “After all, even countries like Israel that haven’t opened for tourism had the second wave in the middle of the summer.”
Even if the minister’s timing is right, businesses groups estimate that tourism revenues would still only reach around 40 to 50 percent of 2019 levels.
“Figures do not add up for our survival, even under the best scenario,” said Grigoris Tasios, president of the Greek Federation of Hoteliers and owner of a hotel in Halkidiki. “It would still be a 50 percent drop, after an 80 percent drop in 2020. I’m afraid that we will need to have an internal bailout in the tourism sector from 2022 to 2025.”
He says that as long as the country remains in the “dark red” category in terms of infections, there won’t be any tourists in Greece before June. But he expects tourist flows could start after that.
“Tourists know how to protect themselves by now,” Tasios said. “They have had enough lockdowns in their countries and they will start assessing whether to book when we turn to the ‘green’ category.”