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Greece Planning to Reopen for Travel by June

FILE - People visit the Pnyx Hill in Athens overlooking the ancient Acropolis, May 29, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought Greece's most profitable industry, tourism, to its knees.

Yet a year since the deadly bug hit this sun-kissed nation of 11 million, causing mass travel cancellations and wreaking financial havoc unseen since Greece's economy went into freefall over a decade ago, tourism officials say they are now marshaling an industry comeback. They are preparing to reopen the country to world travelers by June 1 with a new "safe travel" plan that lets visitors bypass quarantine regulations with a negative coronavirus test taken within 72 hours of their departure.

What’s more, a burst in bookings from the U.K. has industry officials banking on British travelers to spearhead the nation's travel revival.

"Greece has long been a favorite holiday destination for the British," said Grigoris Tassios, president of the country's hoteliers federation. "But with the rate of inoculations in the U.K. largely outpacing all others across Europe and beyond, British travelers will be among the safest to travel here by as early as May."

With more than a quarter of Israel's population of 9 million inoculated in the world's fastest vaccination drive against COVID-19, Israelis, too, are expected to follow suit, as are Americans.

This week, U.S. health officials announced that more Americans had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine than have tested positive for the virus.

"These are all promising signs," Tassios said. "But we still have a way to go."

FILE - Tourists look at the changing of presidential guards outside the Greek parliament , in Athens, July 31, 2020.
FILE - Tourists look at the changing of presidential guards outside the Greek parliament , in Athens, July 31, 2020.

Tourism stalled

Global tourism has been among the industries hit hardest by the public health emergency. The pandemic has affected 75 million people employed in a sector brought to a near standstill by travel bans and closed borders.

But for Greece, where tourism accounts for 20 percent of GDP, providing one in five jobs in a country still crawling out of its worst financial crisis in recent times, the stakes are higher.

A recent report by the financial risk advisory services group Ernst & Young showed Europe's weakest economy shrinking an additional 10 percent in 2020 because of an 80 percent drop in tourism revenue. It forecast a 50 percent rise this year — half of the record 30 million travelers that flooded Greece ahead of the health crisis in 2019 — but only if, as experts warn, the conservative government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis delivers on the daunting task of balancing the safety of a nation with the economic boost more visitors would bring to a country in dire need of financial recovery.

It is not an easy challenge. After five strict months, three national lockdowns and a surge in infections that has seen COVID-19 cases here rocket from 3,000 in September to 160,000 this week, Mitsotakis and his closest aides are now said to be considering the fiercest national shutdown orders yet in a bid to stunt a third wave of COVID-19 sweeping Greece — and to salvage the nation's anemic economy.

But until then, tourism businesses and hoteliers, who preferred to remain closed last year, are wasting no time positioning themselves for a stake in the estimated $10 billion in revenues that British travelers are set to bring to Greece this year, beginning in June.

FILE - A French family poses in front of the ancient Parthenon, at the Acropolis Hill, during a hot day in Athens, July 31, 2020.
FILE - A French family poses in front of the ancient Parthenon, at the Acropolis Hill, during a hot day in Athens, July 31, 2020.

'The chips are down'

As many as 2 million foreign travelers will be redeeming vouchers for vacation packages canceled last summer because of the pandemic, according to industry data. The number of Israelis and Americans following suit remains unclear.

"Not opening is not an option this year," said Alexis Komninos, a leading hotelier on the iconic island of Santorini. "The chips are down, and it's clearly crunch time.

"But while I and others in the industry are doing our part, doling out the cold cash to refurbish, rebuild and slash my prices by 40 percent in flash sales to lure British, German and other customers, the government must do its part in helping subsidize this national reopening.

"This isn't about some sort of business experiment," said Komninos. "It is a national gambit. And if this season is lost — well, then we're all in for a really rough ride."

Tourism ministry officials say they have received assurances from the government that it will subsidize salaries in the industry during the summer. Still, it has yet to decide when and whether incentives will be introduced to cover startup and reopening costs and support a hoteliers bill seen by some as key to any comeback in Greek tourism.