Beaches packed with sunbeds and tourists cramming narrow streets and terraces overlooking the caldera to enjoy a stunning sunset has been the norm for the iconic island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea for many years, even in Junes. But not for this year.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Greece’s attractions reopened their gates to tourists on Monday, with protecting the health of visitors and locals being its top priority, as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has announced.
The islanders in one of the most popular destinations in the country are eager to welcome their first foreign visitors under the new standards. They retain optimism that eventually all will turn out well, for the world, Greece and its tourism industry, a vital pillar of the local economy for decades, they told Xinhua.
Mitsotakis chose Santorini to officially launch the tourism season on Saturday. As of Monday, international flights for tourists to Athens and Thessaloniki airports have resumed.
Travelers from 29 countries, including China, with positive epidemiological data, will be subject to sample testing only upon arrival, while visitors from countries on the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) list of affected areas with a high risk of transmission of COVID-19, until June 30 will have to be tested upon arrival and spend at least one night at a designated hotel.
As of July 1, Greece will fully open all its airports to flights from abroad, as well as sailings from other countries and seven overland border points will reopen and tourists will be subject only to random sampling.
“I believe that about 30 percent of hotels will not open this season. We will see how the season is going and decide the next steps,” Antonis Iliopoulos, President of Santorini hoteliers’ association, said.
Owners cannot cope with the operational costs when occupancy rates on average hardly reach 15 percent for the coming weeks, he explained.
“We have more reservations in August than July, we have more reservations in September than August, so it seems that the season will be extended,” Iliopoulos said, noting that many businessmen are waiting to see whether flows will increase in order to hire more staff.
During spring, while Greece was still in lockdown (March 23-May 4) the government announced the first set of measures to support employees and employers alike, such as tax breaks, benefits and coverage of contributions to social security funds by the state budget.
“We are looking forward to more measures to be taken. They promised us that they will do the best they can in order to protect our industry,” Iliopoulos said.
“Definitely the measures our government has taken help a lot,” hotelier Andreas Patiniotis told Xinhua. “Currently, 40 percent of the hotel’s personnel is working. We hope that in the coming weeks we will add more.”
“Never before have we seen the island so empty, the images are unprecedented. It is a very difficult period for the island,” he said.
“At this moment, July is getting close to 25-30 percent. Last year the same period we had reached 80 to 90 percent,” he said, referring to reservations at his hotel so far.
NECESSARY MEASURES TAKEN
“There is certainly fear, because it is something that we don’t know how it will evolve. We hope everything will be fine,” Patiniotis said, stressing that Greek tourism professionals are strictly following guidelines given by authorities.
Hotel rooms and public areas are constantly disinfected, distances are kept between tables and the personnel have been trained to meet the new demands.
“We have taken all the necessary measures based on health safety protocols and therefore people should be feeling safe and they should come to enjoy the Greek hospitality, the sun and the sea,” he said.
“There are obviously hygiene measures to make sure everything is cleaner than previous standards and the staff now have to work with masks and gloves,” Vassilis Chryssos, owner of a cocktail bar on Santorini, told Xinhua.
There are limitations on the number of persons which can be inside the bar at any time, the number of tables has been reduced, menus are single usage or cleanable.
“A lot of these measures will make a big difference in our profit this year,” Chryssos said.
Given that Greece will see in 2020 only a fraction of the 33 million arrivals registered last year, as Mitsotakis acknowledged on Saturday, and that he had to reduce by 40 percent the tables at the bar, Chryssos is currently working with half of his employees.
“It is a good opportunity for everyone to do a nice restart and focus on the customers,” he said.” I am very positive.”
TOURISM SEASON TO EXTEND
“We are looking forward to the Chinese people to come back to Santorini, because it is very important for us as they travel all year round and we used to have so many Chinese tourists in the past years,” Iliopoulos said, extending a special welcome to Chinese tourists.
“We can’t wait for them to come back,” Chryssos echoed.
The fusion between culture and tourism is a great opportunity for Greece to extend the tourism season, the Greek PM told Xinhua during Saturday’s press conference, noting that Chinese travelers are a special target group since they appreciate archaeological sites and museums around the year rather than sunbathing on a beach.
In order to highlight Greece’s focus on this fusion between tourism and its rich cultural heritage, Mitsotakis toured the Ancient Agora of Athens and its museum, at the foot of the Acropolis hill in Athens, on Monday, after touring an archaeological site on Santorini on Saturday.
Museums all over Greece reopened on Monday after a three-month shutdown, while archaeological sites had opened in May.
Until Monday, Greece has registered a total of 3,134 COVID-19 cases, including 184 deaths, according to the latest data from the authorities.