'We won’t take a step back': Greek islands prepared for tourists

Greece officially opens to foreign arrivals on Monday, June 15

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Mykonos’ newest bar-restaurant, Pelican, seemed to appear from nowhere.

Tables, coffee machines, light fittings, music mixers and staff wearing matching black face masks were still being slotted into place as Greek visitors trickled in at the start of a long holiday weekend. Owner Vasilis Theodorou says he’s in a hurry to get back to business.

Greece is, too.

Heavily reliant on tourism, the country officially opens to foreign arrivals on Monday, June 15. Its hopes are pinned on prime destinations like the islands of Mykonos, Rhodes, Corfu, Crete and Santorini, where regular ferry services have already resumed and direct international flights will start Wednesday, July 1.

Greece has gambled on a decision to relax Covid-19 health inspections at ports and airports to try to avoid another crippling recession, having only recently emerged from a painful financial crisis.

“Business will be 80 per cent down (this year). So we’re waiting for the 20 per cent, and we’re happy because we know that’s what it will be,” Theodorou said.

“No matter how much we wish for it and want it, it won’t be more than that. We expect that tourists from central Europe will come first, and hopefully Americans at a later stage. They are our best customers.”

Timely and strictly enforced lockdown measures have so far kept the infection rate in Greece low and the death toll below 200.

But reopening means islands — many with only basic health facilities and previously sheltered from the outbreak on the Greek mainland — will again be receiving visitors from around the world far in excess of the local population.

Mykonos Mayor Konstantinos Koukas told the AP that islanders feel prepared and have clear government guidelines.

“We want to open back up and we are heading into the 2020 season with optimism,” he said. “But we are fully aware that ... (it) will be nothing like the season in 2019 — and hopefully nothing like the season in 2021.”

An island that to many epitomises the high-life, Mykonos would normally look very different in early June.

Its winding whitewashed streets would be packed. High-paying customers would be spilling out of the bars, eyeing luxury storefronts and competing with crowds from cruise ships for a restaurant table. VIP watchers have spotted pop star Katy Perry and soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo among a large crop of celebrities seen here in recent summers.

This year, beaches are empty, rented cars fill fenced-off lots, and most stores remain padlocked. Stray cats and the island’s mascot, a large, light pink pelican, roam the streets for company.

In this Saturday, June 7, 2020 photo, a worker walks past a pelican in the main town of the Greek island of Mykonos, Greece. Business owners and locals officials on the Greek holiday island of Mykonos, a popular vacation spot for celebrities, club-goers, and high rollers, say they are keen to reopen for business despite the risks of COVID-19 posed by international travel. Greece will officially launch its tourism season Monday, June 15, 2020 after keeping the country's infection rate low. (AP Photo/Derek Gatopoulos)
A worker walks past a pelican in the main town of the Greek island of Mykonos, Greece. AP Photo

Mosaic artist Irene Syrianou has kept her workshop open despite the lack of customers. “We watch the news and hope for the best,” she says, cracking pieces of marble into chips with a hammer.

“Nearly all my customers are American, whether it’s buying pieces of art, making orders online, or attending classes I give during the summer,” she said, before adding with a chuckle: “So it’s going to be a tough year. But I’m an artist and I’ve gone hungry before.”

The government's reopening policy has been criticised by the left-wing Syriza main opposition party, which argued tougher controls should be kept in place, with authorities only permitting travel to those recently tested in countries of origin.

Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias on Friday insisted that a safety net had been built for the islands — with connections to each other and to mainland hospitals for testing and health evacuations. The network of doctors and support staff will be deployed with the help of more than 100 mobile units in cars and speed boats, and backed by the coast guard, air force, and civil authorities. The health ministry will also have 11 futuristic-looking “transit capsules” that can be used for patients heading to intensive care facilities.

We're sending a clear message to the world's traveling public that we won't take a step back, either in health safeguards or in opening up the country

“Each island will be attached to a fully equipped mainland hospital,” Kikilias said.

Greece’s gamble follows a decade of tourism growth and increasing reliance on the industry, with annual visitor numbers more than doubling since 2010 to 34 million last year and revenue up 80 per cent to some 18 billion euros ($20.2 billion).

During many of those years, the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and exit from the euro currency bloc, while Greeks endured harsh economic austerity in return for three international bailouts.

Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis, once Greece’s top official for tax and revenues, said Friday that the country is determined to support its tourism industry.

“We’re sending a clear message to the world's traveling public that we won’t take a step back, either in health safeguards or in opening up the country.”