Thursday, 17 June 2021

As Greece opens to tourists amid pandemic, some shift strategy

This article was published by Al Jazeera

CORFU, Greece - For the past 14 years, Eleni Chrysikopoulou has raised her children selling trinkets to tourists. Her shop is well situated at the intersection of two main streets in the heart of Corfu town; but that also means she pays a hefty rent. 

Last year nearly ruined her. Covid travel restrictions meant that Corfu received just 28,000 visitors from cruise ships, down from 850,000 in 2019. The 1.5mn visitors who arrived by air in 2019 dropped by three quarters. 

“A lot of shops have closed. I know of many instances, people who’ve been in business for years. I’ve no idea what happened to them. Perhaps they went back to their villages,” says Chrysikopoulou. She thinks she, too, will be forced to close shop. “My only consolation is that... I don’t have underage children.” 

Greece’s plight is Corfu’s writ large. In 2019, a record 31 million visitors came to Greece, making it the seventh most popular holiday destination worldwide. Last year's visitors fell by three quarters, and so did revenue, to 4.3bn euros ($5.2bn). Since tourism generates a fifth of the economy, the government is determined to improve on that performance this year. 

On May 14, it became the first European Union country to welcome leisure travellers from the rest of the EU and a list of third countries without quarantine. Instead, they must provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken 72 hours before departure. 

The relaxation of measures for visitors is accompanied by some internal relaxation. Museums are opening. Curfew is moving from 9pm to half past midnight. People can now move across the country’s regions. It’s no longer necessary to send the government a text message every time you step out of doors. On May 21 open-air cinemas will open, a favourite summer pastime for Greeks. 

Even the government admits that none of these measures will have an impact on the economy until other countries allow their nationals to travel without restrictions. Germany and the UK, which together sent 5.5mn tourists to Greece in 2019, have not yet done so. 

Since January, Greece has been pressing the European Union to adopt a Digital Green Pass, which would allow vaccinated Europeans to travel unmolested. It has yet to happen. Frustrated, Greece again seized the initiative. 

“We saw that there was a clear lack of leadership and we needed to provide this kind of leadership by providing a safe framework for others to copy and for thought processes to mature,” Tourism minister Harry Theoharis told Al Jazeera. 

“There’s a Catch22 situation that we can easily fall into – we wait for the other country to take a step and they wait for us. So by actually removing unilaterally some of those barriers we allow the other countries to make some decisions based on what we have decided.” 

The government believes it will see growth of 3.6% this year. The European Commission’s spring forecast for Greece is rosier, at 4.1%. Both are based on assumptions of a resurgent tourist season. 

Theoharis won’t venture a prediction. “We believe it’s going to be a better year than last year, perhaps a substantially better year,” he says. “We have our own scenarios if you like, but those scenarios are very precarious.” 

On Corfu, some are willing to put a number on the recovery. “This year we hope to reach 45% of 2019 income. And That’s the good case scenario,” says Spyros Chalikiopoulos, president of the travel agents’ association. “We hope to reach 2019 figures in 2022.” 

The government has two powerful weapons it did not last year – self-tests and vaccines. Greece has the fifth-fastest vaccination rate in the EU. And it is prioritising the vaccination of 85 islands, including Corfu, by the end of June. 

“[This] is a very important weapon in our hands so that we can be a safe destination, which is our number one issue,” says Babis Voulgaris, president of the Corfu hoteliers’ association. 

On Paxoi, just south of Corfu, herd immunity has already been achieved, because at 2,500 the population is just one fiftieth the size of Corfu’s. 

“We’re one of the lucky islands where everyone, from 18 to 90, was being vaccinated simutaneously from day one. I think we’re in a much better position now than most of Greece,” says deputy mayor Pantelis Kouvas. 

But Paxoi, which did well to retain half its business at the height of the pandemic last year, has another ace up its sleeve. It is almost entirely invested in the luxury market, renting villas and apartments to wealthy Europeans. Paxoi’s villa owners say half their clients are repeat tourists, a loyalty rate hard to find in the mass tourism market. 

“Customers tell us, ‘if we don’t make it in May we’ll make it in September or October’,” says Stefanos Fougaros, who started out waiting tables as a teenager and at 41 has a villa and car rental business. “We worked hard and we still made a loss [last year], but it wasn’t as bad as it was for others.” 

Corfu is gradually moving upmarket as well. The Voulgaris family owns one five-star hotel and is building another. “Half the luxury hotels have been built in the last 15 years, so there is a trend towards quality tourism. That’s our goal now,” says Chalikiopoulos. 

The quest for luxury markets will take Corfu far from Europe, he says. “We’re at a turning point. We depend on the UK market for 40 percent of our tourism.  We’re trying to attract new markets like China, the UAE, Kazakhtsan, Azerbaijan. We believe this is the future.” 

The government has so far spent 40bn euros ($48bn) to prevent businesses from going under during the pandemic. With a public debt approaching twice GDP, that is not something it wants to do again. 

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