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Greece opens its doors to COVID-free tourists

Greece has lifted quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers and those testing negative for COVID-19 from key tourism markets, including Europe, the UK and the United States, in what officials called “baby steps” on the road back to normality.

But while qualifying visitors will be able to check into hotels to enjoy Greek sunshine and beaches, they’ll be subject to the same restrictions as locals, meaning restaurants and bars will remain off limits, except for takeaways.

The move marks the first time the country has been open to American visitors since March 2020 when Greece entered its first lockdown at the onset of the pandemic.

It also makes Greece one of the first major European destinations to reopen to tourists ahead of the summer season — a development that could see it steal a significant chunk of holiday traffic away from rival hotspots.

Under the new rules, arrivals from the EU, UK, United States, Israel, Serbia and the UAE who have been vaccinated or have a negative PCR test up to 72 hours prior to arrival can enter.

Officials said targeted rapid checks will be carried out at entry points and quarantine hotels are ready to accommodate those who test positive during this process. Safety protocols including wearing masks and social distancing will remain in place.

Greece’s Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis told CNN that the country “is taking these baby steps, the start of a gradual opening process that will lead to a full opening of tourism in Greece on May 14. During the weeks ahead we will be making adjustments.”

‘Slow start’

In addition to Athens and the east coast city of Thessaloniki, direct international flights are now allowed in some of Greece’s most popular vacation destinations in Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu.

The tourism sector accounts for more than 20% of the country’s GDP and an estimated 25% of the Greek workforce — more than a million jobs.

With its economy so dependent on the sector, and only gradually recovering from a near decade-long financial crisis, Athens has been vigorously campaigning for the introduction of vaccine passports to encourage EU-wide travel. It has also been in talks with non-EU countries to try to establish travel corridors.

Israeli visitors testing negative or with vaccination certificates have been exempt from a one-week quarantine since early April, but officials say other ongoing restrictions plus a recent surge in Greek cases has discouraged all but a few.

Monday’s opening-up announcement was welcomed on the popular party island of Mykonos. Mayor Konstantinos Koukas has said revenues in the COVID-hit 2020 season were just 30% of the previous year.

Iraklis Zissimopoulos, CEO of the Semeli Hospitality Group, which includes hotels, bars and restaurants on the island, described the lifting of the quarantine restrictions as a symbolic move.

“It sends the message that Greece is sticking to its promise to fully open in May and as such it is welcome,” he said. “We know it is going to be a slow start.”

‘Protective shield’

Even with Greece’s vaccination program progressing at a modest pace — currently under 10% of the population have received one dose — more restrictions are expected to be lifted in the weeks leading to May 14.

As of next month, once the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated, those working in tourism are expected to be next.

But dozens of Greece’s smaller islands, with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, are now COVID-free with the entire population having received both jabs. The vaccination program is now expanding to bigger islands.

It’s hoped that securing the islands will allow Greece to offer specific COVID-free zones.

“If all the locals are vaccinated in Mykonos, an island of about 10,000 then we will have a protective shield,” says Zissimopoulos, who is also a cardiologist.

What is certain is that the appetite for travel is there.

Earlier this month an experiment devised by travel industry experts saw nearly 200 Dutch participants fly to the island of Rhodes, trading lockdown back home for a week of voluntary confinement in a beach resort.

They were not allowed to leave the resort during their stay and agreed to quarantine for up to 10 days upon returning home.

The “safe holidays” test run attracted applications from more than 25,000 people in under 24 hours, according to Martine Langerak, spokesperson for the tour operator Sunweb, which organized the trip under the auspices of the Dutch government.

Special moments

“We were surprised by the demand. It shows how much people want to go on holiday,” Langerak told CNN.

Despite Greece’s resolve to open its borders, some countries like the UK still have restrictions in place preventing international travel, and Greece’s recent rise in infections mean quarantine rules may apply to holidaymakers when they head home.

Travel industry experts in Greece agree that it will be a slow start with bookings starting to only pick up toward July. This means hundreds of thousands who work in tourism and related industries will have to wait to find out if, and when, they have a job this summer.

Roxane Seewoester, a 25-year-old wedding planner at Golden Apple Weddings in Rhodes, a destination that normally receives over two million tourists annually, says the majority of tourist weddings were canceled last year.

This summer they are again gradually being pushed back.

“We work a lot with people from the United States and Australia,” she says. “It’s a long way to travel. People need months to plan. We hope they will be able to come and celebrate their special moment with their loved ones and that we will all be able to get on with our lives.”

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