Greece is ready to welcome summer, and hopes to re-open for tourists as soon as June 15. Last week and in a bid to encourage travel the Greek government released a “white list”, based on epidemiological criteria, comprising 29 countries from which visitors will be welcomed without routine testing or quarantine requirements. Travellers from European countries including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Malta, Norway, Romania and Serbia will be welcomed, as will visitors from afar such as Australia, China, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, New Zealand, and South Korea. Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis has said that health officials will conduct spot tests as required, and healthcare capacity will be boosted at popular tourist destinations to cope with potential outbreaks.
With most flights to Greece set to resume on July 1, Greece is seeking to rescue what remains of a traditionally profitable tourism season. And although flights from the U.S., UK, Italy, Spain and France remain banned due to the high rate of COVID-19 infections in these countries, the government has said it plans to review its white list starting July 1.
Europe’s largest low-budget airline Ryanair is re-opening 90 percent of its routes, albeit at 40 percent of its normal schedule. They will fly to “key holiday airports” in Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Portugal on the same date. However, flights will be limited to countries in the eurozone, the Schengen travel zone, eastern Europe, and Israel.
Meanwhile, Greece’s flagship carrier, AEGEAN Airlines announced the resumption of flights to Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Larnaca, Munich, and Stuttgart. Connections to Israel are also excepted to resume shortly after.
Greece has weathered the coronavirus pandemic particularly well, with only 175 deaths reported as of June 1. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the country’s success in containing the virus would be a “passport of safety, credibility and health” to visitors, and hopes it will be enough to rescue the summer season. State-run health services are being expanded to the islands, including intensive care units on Lesbos, Samos, Rhodes, Zakynthos, and Corfu, along with already existing facilities on the island of Crete.
And yet, despite opening business for the summer, Greece is going to bear a heavy financial burden due to the months of shutdown necessary to contain the spread of the virus. “We will win the economic battle just like we won the health one,” Mitsotakis said in a national address, while warning Greek citizens that the financial impact of the virus will be immense.
Tourism is a major driver of the Greek economy, accounting for nearly 20 percent of GDP. Some 33 million travellers visited Greece in 2029 accounting for 19 billion euros in revenue. But because of its dependency on the sector, Greece is predicted to experience the sharpest economic contraction in the eurozone, despite its success in containing the virus.
To lessen the blow, the government is unrolling tax deductions for the travel and hospitality sector. And worker salaries in tourism, catering, and industry will be subsidised via EU support mechanisms. Beaches have already reopened, as well as heritage sites like the Acropolis and over 200 archaeological sites. Bars and restaurants also re-opened soon after on May 25, the same day a ban on travel to the Greek islands was lifted.
The good news is that interest in visiting Greece is high, according to recent polls by Mindhaus, a tourism marketing strategy company that is a member of V+O Greece. According to the poll, many tourists are hoping to resume travel when a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is available, but many are also keen to escape their homes as soon as restrictions are lifted – possibly as a result of being cooped up during lockdown. However, Greece will be competing with neighbouring Spain and Portugal for the same pool of tourists this summer, most of whom will be coming from European countries. Though Spain and Portugal are not as far along in the re-opening process, they are both slowly gearing up to salvage the summer season.
A New Travel Corridor
Greece is also mulling the creation of a safe travel zone with Israel and Cyprus in a proposed “coronavirus corridor”, in which tourists will not need to undergo testing or a quarantine if they travel between these states, and will only be subjected to a temperature check at the airport.
“There is enormous demand from the citizens of Israel. We see people on talk shows saying ‘when are we off to Greece?’” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We really want to resume flights and tourism connections with countries in a similar situation, and the most evident one is Greece and we are working on it now. I hope we can bring it to completion quickly.” However, Israel still mandates a 2-week quarantine for anyone entering the country from abroad, which might be difficult to work around. But Greece is determined to make it work.
“All issues are open, but we are positive towards this prospect and we believe we will manage to find common ground, in alignment with the hygiene protocols and standards, and to reach a reciprocal agreement,” said Minister Theoharis.
Cyprus, which has only logged 17 COVID-19 induced casualties, announced that starting June 9, travellers from Greece and Israel, along with 11 other countries will be able to enter the country without quarantine requirements. Another six countries will be added to this list as of June 20. Travellers must be able to present a negative coronavirus test taken within the 72 hours prior to their arrival.
The success of Greece’s efforts to rescue the summer season is far from certain. But the fact remains that the country’s lauded success in managing the coronavirus pandemic has positioned it as a prime tourism destination during what may be remembered as the most challenging season in decades.