Having successfully managed the first stage of the coronavirus pandemic, Greece started lifting several restrictions since May 4. Serious questions still remain, however, regarding how many tourists are going to arrive this summer and how the tourist industry will cope.
Tourism amounts to more than 20% of the country’s GDP, overwhelmingly the main pillar for the Greek economy. With flight restrictions and border restrictions still in place, Greeks worry, much like many tourism-dependent countries in Southern Europe, about how they will survive if they are forced to endure the rest of 2020 without the prospect of making most of their annual earnings from the tourist trade.
The Greek government has been one of the most vocal members of the EU that has been advocating for the reopening of the bloc’s borders so that foreign travellers can come to Greece for much-needed summer rest and the added health benefits of plenty of sunshine and clear seawater. Greece has been keen to stress that both will help boost visitors’ health, while at the same time remaining in line with the common European guidelines that were rolled-out on May 13.
Tourists will be able to fly to a destination within Europe wearing a mask and maintaining all other rules of personal hygiene. Furthermore, airlines will not have to keep the middle seat empty, which would lead to an even more dramatic loss of income, due to the restriction of the planes’ capacity. Passengers will also not have to be tested for the coronavirus prior to a flight and will also not be quarantined for a period of 14 days upon arrival to their destination.
The Commission’s guidelines were widely embraced with a sense of relief by in Athens. Greek officials, including a high-ranking member of the government, reiterated to New Europe that this summer will be quite different from the recent past and Greece is likely to see its tourist revenues drop from €18 billion to €8 billion.
The EU’s protocols do give Athens the opportunity to discuss a common set of rules and guidelines with other members of the EU to carry out a safe form of tourism this summer. A diplomatic aide to Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister, explained to New Europe that the Greek government will have to reach a government to government understanding on a common framework of protocols to travels from and to Greece.
Thus far, Germany has not prioritised an agreement with the Greek side and is, instead, focused on the gradual lifting of restrictions on its land borders.
Italy, Greece’s Mediterranean neighbour and the country in Europe that suffered from the most fatalities, is deeply opposed to the idea of bilateral agreements that would cause further friction between the already strained internal relationships between the bloc’s 27 members, which have grown ever-more contentious since the start of the coronavirus crisis.
Mitsotakis’ diplomatic aide has explained that the Greek government has already started working on certain government-to-government agreements based on common protocols. One of the first countries Greece entered into discussions with was its northern neighbour Bulgaria.
Several tourists from Bulgaria travel to Greek coastal destinations or islands, mostly by car. If the two sides come to an agreement, it will be used for a template for other bilateral deals between Greece and other countries.
Athens is also in talks with another Mediterranean neighbour – Cyprus – a destination for many Greeks, especially for business obligations. Israel has also moved to finalise a deal with the Greek government as Greece is one of the most popular summer destinations in Europe for many Israeli tourists.
Israel’s authorities have already labelled Greece as one of the safest destinations to travel to in Europe. Some estimates indicate that as many as 1 million Israelis could travel to Greece this summer, up from 700,000 in 2019.
Mitsotakis has often spearheaded the tourism issue within the framework of the so-called “Smart Management COVID Group”, an informal collection of nine leaders who’ve successfully managed the pandemic. The group includes Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Mete Fredriksen of Denmark, Norway’s Erna Solberg, and Jacinda Ardern from New Zealand.
Who will theoretically be allowed in?
As it stands, the Greek authorities are well-aware that most of the usual sources of tourism will not play a significant role this year. It remains to be seen whether British citizens will be able to travel to Greece.
The same applies to American citizens. With more than 3 million members, the US is home to the world’s largest Greek diaspora community, most of whom are not Greek citizens. The community regularly make an annual pilgrimage to their ancestral homeland and will be eager to continue the tradition this summer. Furthermore, more than a million American passport holders travelled to Greece in 2019, the highest numbers in years, which also accounted for a substantial amount of the tourism euros made by Greeks in the industry due to the fact that American tourists – along with Germans, British, Russians, Israelis, Scandinavians, and Chinese – are generally high-end spenders.
As of yet, no protocol between the Greek, American, or British authorities has been finalised, but the window remains open in the event that a formula can be found that satisfies all sides.
The Greek tourist industry will need to put an additional emphasis on domestic tourism, as well as on arrivals and visitors from countries closest to its periphery. Questions about non-EU visitors from Russia, China, and Australia – all of which account for a significant portion of Greece’s tourism revenue – also remains up in the air.