‘Forget COVID’: Tourists return to Greece

HERAKLION (AFP) – Tourists basked in the warmth, sun and crystal waters of Crete for long-awaited holidays as Greece kickstarted its tourism season after last year’s pandemic misery.

“I hope to forget this 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 on Friday it was scrapping a quarantine requirement for visitors from the European Union (EU) and Britain who test negative for the coronavirus.

Tourism is crucial to the Greek economy, as it accounts for 20 per cent of gross domestic
product (GDP).

Deckchairs and umbrellas prepared in front of the sea on Falaserna beach on the western coast of Crete island. PHOTO: AFP

“We are raising anchor,” Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis declared as he launched the holiday season.

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 last week, 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.

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 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 United Kingdom (UK) put Greece on its amber travel list, meaning that returning Britons face at least five days in quarantine.

“We have no reservations at the moment and only 15 to 20 per cent of the hotels were in operation last week, while the rest will open gradually until the end of June,” said Greek Federation of Hoteliers President Grigoris Tasios.

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, an establishment owner on Kos island.

“We are aiming to get around half of 2019 revenues,” he told AFP.

Greece’s tourism revenue plunged to EUR4.28 billion in 2020 from EUR18 billion in 2019, while tourist arrivals fell 76.5 per cent 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 establishment in Kalymnos.

“This constant change of rules is damaging us.”