Tourism Minister Haris Theocharis told Parliament on Tuesday that tourism in Greece will open on May 14, as scheduled, stating flatly “the whole country is safe.” But as vaccinated tourists from abroad roam the country, vaccinated Greeks are still made to stay at home– and this is beginning to grate on the nerves of the Greek people.
Theoharis explained that Greece’s plan has five lines of defense to begin accepting foreign tourists without putting them or local residents in danger of contracting the coronavirus.
These lines of defense comprise vaccination or negative test certificates; the random testing system at borders and airports; quarantine hotels for the isolation of any visitors who are positive for the virus; the vaccination of tourism professionals – which will begin immediately after the most vulnerable citizens have been inoculated; and strict adherence to virus measures.
The Minister also admitted that there is no such thing as a “Covid-free” island — despite the use of this term after vaccination campaigns inoculated residents on many Greek islands. He stated that it is only procedural reasons that have led to the blanket vaccination of residents on smaller islands.
“The whole country is safe,” the minister stated flatly.
The Tourism Minister stressed repeatedly that the rules that apply to Greek citizens apply in their entirety — without exception — to foreign travelers when they are staying in Greece.
“We make no discrimination,” he reiterated.
Israeli, other vaccinated tourists, may roam free
However, this appears to be at odds with reality, as many understand it, who have read the guidelines set out for Israeli and other tourists who are already vaccinated, and see them arriving in Greece.
The first tourist arrivals who have already come to Greek shores for the 2021 tourist season have struck an uneasy chord in the country. Greeks can now see foreign travelers moving from airport to their destination unhindered, while they themselves are kept at home in lockdown, unable to stir for a breath of fresh air without texting the government first for its approval.
Greeks are still not allowed to drive from one municipality to another due to the draconian measures in place which are meant to tamp down the rising tide of coronavirus infections, mostly from the British variant of the virus.
Majority of Greeks in favor of reopening country
Most do agree, however, that yes, it is indeed time to reopen to tourists from abroad.
According to a new poll by SKAI news, a majority of citizens (69%) are either calling for an immediate or a slight relaxation of the current measures while only 17% of the Greek public believe that there should be an extension of the current measures “for as long as needed” — this last metric was 29% the last time a survey was done.
Almost half, or 42%, believe that Greece should reopen its retail stores, 30% say that schools should open their doors and 14% believe Greeks should be able to travel from county to county.
So it is clear that the Greek people are experiencing coronavirus fatigue, as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis admitted in a recent CNN interview. And they do want their country to reopen — just not to a few chosen foreigners.
Their anger is not directed at those who are now streaming into Greece from Israel, where an impressive majority of residents have been vaccinated — and they for the most part are not against the country’s reopening.
Vaccinated Greeks still stuck at home while tourists free to travel in country
It simply seems paradoxical — and more than a little hypocritical — when Greeks are kept indoors on sunny Spring days, and when they are allowed to go out, they see foreigners moving from prefecture to prefecture without a care.
Foreign tourists are now seen routinely in cities around Greece after having to do nothing more than show a vaccination card to the authorities — while Greeks cannot take one day of vacation inside their own country.
The first vaccinated tourists from Israel arrived in Greece in the morning of Saturday, April 3 — all holding their precious vaccination certificates, as demanded by the Greek government.
This will allow them to enjoy their vacations in Greece unfettered, without having to quarantine.
The tourists were of course obligated to show their vaccination certificates in order to be able to leave Eleftherios Venizelos international airport of Athens. But there, their obligations ended, and they are free to explore anywhere in Greece that they care to.
And this is happening while Greek citizens who have been vaccinated with the very same inoculations are stuck indoors for the most part, unable to stir unless they ask the government for permission.
Greece to allow 10,000 vaccinated travelers from Israel per week
Greek authorities decided recently to accept a maximum of 10,000 vaccinated Israeli tourists per week.
This move is part of the nation’s “Green Pass” initiative, which allows vaccinated individuals into the country as a way to kick off the Greek tourism season this Spring.
Tourism Minister Theoharis has stated that Serbs may be also able to visit Greece this month, as the government considers opening the border on a pilot basis before Easter (May 2). Ambitious vaccination programs like those in Israel, the UK and the US are underway in Serbia, of course — but it was one of the hardest-hit nations in the entire world during the pandemic.
Many Greeks worried about state of health care system
Not all Greeks are happy with reopening at all at this precarious time.
As Phil Butler, the editor of Argophilia Travel News, who lives on Crete and works as a tourist guide, says, “This pandemic is a gnawing catastrophe, unlike anything the people here have seen in decades. And the disaster grows geometrically because the country’s leadership cannot prioritize human life above other considerations.
“The people have lost faith, the system is cracking, and not just a few have sounded the alarm. In the halls of power in Athens, it seems as if truth and logic are the enemies these days.”
Butler, whose very lifeline is the tourist industry, says that “job one” of the Greek government is protecting its citizens — not reopening the country again. Lobbyists for the international hotel chains are demanding that Greece reopen while many in the country are still very vulnerable to the coronavirus — especially those suffering from underlying conditions.
“Lobbyists,” he says, are “demanding the undoable. No, I speak incorrectly again. These lobbyists are demanding the unthinkable.
“With people sick and dying in almost every prefecture of the country, the people in charge of the country are running around bragging about the “handling” of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the Tourism Minister races around from press availability to tourism-related events, trumpeting “All You Need is Greece!” the new Greek tourism slogan, “old people with heart conditions sit on waiting lists to be vaccinated in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Heraklion,” Butler says.
Healthcare sector in Greece on verge of collapse
“Meanwhile, the country has recently diagnosed record numbers of COVID-19 cases. The healthcare sector in Greece is on the verge of collapse. Thousands of businesses and one million workers are on the ropes. The situation is in a shambles,” Butler states.
The Prime Minister seems to be swayed by the big hoteliers’ associations more than anything else at the moment, he says, with a statement from Celebrity Cruises on Greek Independence Day, March 25, emblematic of that mindset.
Celebrity trumpeted that they would resume their Greek island cruise schedule starting in June. “And the CEO of Celebrity made no secret of her appreciation for Athens’ help,” Butler noted.
Greeks willing to be vaccinated, do their part to reopen economy
According to the SKAi survey, there is still quite a bit of support for the New Democracy government, with 47% supporting it and an equal number of people saying they had a negative view of its pandemic management.
A large majority of Greeks, 62%, hold a negative view of the opposition Syriza party at present.
Greek citizens, it appears, are more than willing to do their part in becoming vaccinated so that they can safely open up again in every sector. Fully eight out of ten, or 82%, of citizens told the SKAI survey that they would get the coronavirus vaccine, with a mere 16% who said they would refuse it under any conditions.
Clearly, the Greek people have had enough and are ready to do whatever they have to do to put this past year of darkness and uncertainty behind them.
But they are understandably not willing to be treated as second-class citizens in their own country.