Tourists basked in the warmth, sun and crystal waters of Crete on Friday for long-awaited holidays as Greece kickstarted its tourism season after last year’s pandemic misery. “I hope to forget this damn COVID,” said Jil Wirries, a 28-year old student from Hanover, Germany, as he collected his luggage at the island’s Heraklion airport. “Everything is terrible in Germany. Aside from the weather, everything is closed and people are depressed, including me. I’m so happy to be here,” he said.
Greece and Europe’s other tourism hotspots are vying to woo back visitors after the pandemic wrecked last year’s holiday season as countries imposed travel bans and quarantines. France and Spain launched tourism campaigns this week while Italy said Friday it was scrapping a quarantine requirement for visitors from the EU, Britain and Israel who test negative for the coronavirus.
Portugal said it would allow British tourists visit the country again from today after London placed the country on its safe list – just in time for fans heading to the May 29 Champions League final in Porto. Tourism is crucial to the Greek economy, as it accounts for 20 percent of GDP. “We are raising anchor,” Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis declared as he launched the holiday season Thursday evening from the ancient Greek temple of Poseidon near Athens.
The new holiday season couldn’t come soon enough for restaurateurs and cafe owners eagerly preparing for patrons to come back after suffering so long under coronavirus lockdown measures. “We hope this will be a good season because the winter was difficult for all of us, employers, employees and the tourist sector,” said Alexandros Koukourakis as he set up tables and chairs at his restaurant near the old town of Chania in Crete.
According to government regulations announced on Wednesday, anyone travelling to Greek islands by sea or air must show a vaccination certificate or a negative COVID-19 test result. Europe’s leading tour operator TUI has scheduled 120 flights to Greece until the end of May. More than 100 flights were expected at Greek airports on Friday and Saturday, according to civil aviation officials.
At the western tip of Crete, three other German tourists could not believe their luck as they gazed upon the breathtaking beauty of Balos lagoon. “We searched for a location to go for our first holiday post-COVID and we … spontaneously decided to come here,” said Anne Marie Buhrer, 25, from Munich. “We can’t believe how beautiful it is here.”
Nationwide, over four million vaccinations have already been carried out in the country of 10.8 million, and the government has made its idyllic islands a priority for jabs. With several restrictions still in place for travellers throughout Europe, Greek hoteliers expect the tourism sector to pick up from late June or early July, alongside stronger vaccination figures. In an early setback, the UK put Greece on its amber travel list, meaning that returning Britons face at least five days in quarantine.
Hotel business slow
“We have no reservations at the moment and only 15 to 20 percent of the hotels will be operating this Friday, while the rest will open gradually until the end of June,” said Grigoris Tasios, president of the Greek federation of hoteliers. The opening of the tourism sector comes as Greeks will also be allowed to go about freely within the country for the first time since November.
“Last year everything was a blur, now we are entering a different tourist season,” said George Segredos, a beach bar owner on Kos island. “We are aiming to get around half of 2019 revenues,” he told AFP. Greece’s tourism revenue plunged to €4.28 billion ($5.0 billion) in 2020 from €18 billion in 2019, while tourist arrivals fell 76.5 percent to just 7.4 million, according to the Greek Tourism Confederation Institute.
Tourism is far from being back to normal. The Greek island of Kalymnos remains in strict lockdown owing to scores of recent infections, highlighting how fragile and fluid the situation remains. “We were preparing to open in early May, getting supplies and hiring personnel and suddenly we are in deep red,” said Michalis Petridis, owner of a beach and night bar in Kalymnos. “This constant change of rules is damaging us.” – AFP