Greece’s tourism appeal is no secret, but with most of us still in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the idea of spending our summer there can only be a distant dream.
Or maybe not, according to Greek officials.
By enforcing a strict and early lockdown, the country has managed to keep deaths incredibly low, around 150 to date.
This week, some businesses like hairdressers and bookstores were allowed to re-open for the first time.
The country’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, thinks Greece may, ever so cautiously, be a model for welcoming back some travellers this summer.
“The tourism experience this summer may be slightly different from what you’ve had in previous years,” Mr Mitsotakis said.
“Maybe no bars (will) be open, or no tight crowds, but you can still get a fantastic experience in Greece, provided that the global epidemic is on a downward path.”
New travel protocols
Opening up to tourism inevitably means opening the country up to people potentially carrying the virus, but Mr Mitsotakis hopes current testing regimes can be enhanced to reduce the risk.
At the moment, every international traveller is screened for COVID-19 upon arriving in Athens.
Mr Mitsotakis wants international, or at least European, standards that set the same travel protocols for all countries.
“I would assume that people will be tested before they get on a plane, not after they arrive here,” Mr Mitsotakis said.
“They can only get on the plane with a negative test, or with a positive antibody test.”
If all goes to plan, he hopes the country can start welcoming tourists by July 1 this year.
Targeting high-end tourists
Given the amount of effort it will take to get here at a time when airlines have stopped flying most services, Mr Mitsotakis is banking on “more high-end tourists.”
“Yachting, for example, where you have a fewer number of people who are on a boat, and then they go out to eat or buy provisions,” he said.
“Tourism in smaller hotels seems to me to be better suited for this new sort of post-pandemic world.”
The question of when and how to open is no trivial point for a nation that’s been roiled by recession and economic turmoil for more than a decade.
This country’s GDP is at least 20 per cent dependent on tourism, double the global average.
With over 31 million tourists in 2019, three times its population, Greece has more than doubled its number of visitors in 10 years and billions have been invested in services and infrastructure.
At least one in four Greek locals work in tourism or related industries.
Early forecasts had projected a booming year, leading Irene Petrakou and her two brothers to invest in the hotel they run in central Athens.
Opened by their parents in the 1970s, the family business has been their main source of income.
“Early bookings looked good, we decided to renovate,” Ms Petrakou said.
“The current situation creates big cashflow issues for us.”
Summer season rescue?
A recent survey by Greece’s Chamber of Hotels shows that 65 per cent of hoteliers responded fear that they could be pushed to bankruptcy.
City hotels are expected to re-open as of June 1, with seasonal hotels expected to follow up to a month later.
Yet, as Ms Petrakou points out, there is still no clarity on when international flights will resume – a major concern given 90 per cent of Greece’s tourism revenue comes from international visitors.
“The first part of the summer is already lost,” she said.
“Clients with bookings later in the season have a ‘wait and see’ approach, which is good.”
Like many in the industry, Ms Petrakou believes that Greece’s success in containing the virus early is key to the country’s tourism brand surviving this crisis intact and could lead to a quicker recovery.
The Greek prime minister said that the sense of collective success around the country’s fight against COVID-19 will be a legacy he takes away from the crisis.
“And I dare to use the word pride,” Mr Mitsotakis said.
“Greeks haven’t been proud in a long, long time,”
That pride, and what he hopes will be the relative safety of Greece’s COVID-19 strategy will be a draw this summer.
“It’s good to have these sentiments back. Positive feelings, they will help us to address the big economic crisis that is clearly around the corner,” he said.
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