ATHENS, GREECE - After a brutal 10-year financial crisis, Greece was on course to a promising rebound. Businesses and exports were slowly but consistently growing, and tourism was booming. With the coronavirus, however, the biggest money-making industry for Europe’s poorest economy, is in peril.
This was supposed to be a record year, with this tiny, sun-kissed nation and its idyllic islands expecting three times as many travelers as its population of 11 million.
Now, not even a single tourist with a hat and camera can be seen.
Lyssandros Tsilidis, the president of the Federation of Hellenic Associations of Travel and Tourist Agencies, described a devastated tourism industry.
From inexpensive hostels to five-star resorts, he said, no one has been spared. All trips have been canceled. All flights have been grounded. It's impossible to predict how and when it could all start up again, he said.
For a country for which tourism accounts for 25 percent of gross domestic product and where 1 in 5 jobs is linked to the trade, COVID-19 is exacting huge financial losses.
The Greek economy is the European Union’s second-most reliant on tourism, after Cyprus, which makes it much more vulnerable and adds more hardship to a nation still reeling from a brutal 10-year recession.
To offset some of the pain, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government has stepped in, affording billions of euros to businesses while subsidizing employees’ salaries to prevent massive layoffs.
On the popular island of Rhodes, though, where more than 2 million mainly British, German and American tourists flock each summer, resort owners are now considering staying shut beyond the mandatory lockdown that ends later this month, through the summer.
Manolis Markopoulos, the head of the island’s hotel owners, said resorts may have no other option than to shut down entirely for the season. He said cancelations are running at nearly 100 percent for May, and operating costs are too high to maintain in a crisis that has no clear end date.
Early and rigorous actions taken by the Greek government have helped contain the spread of the coronavirus here.
However, for travel to resume and tourism to kick off again, all countries must be free of the coronavirus, Tsilidis said.
Quarantines and travel just don’t mix, he said. What British national, or German or American is going to travel halfway around the globe for a week’s vacation in Greece, knowing he’ll be quarantined for at least 14 days? he asked.
To head off a complete collapse of the country’s multibillion-dollar industry, officials said they will target domestic tourism more than ever -- encouraging Greeks to rediscover their country once the virus is brought under control and travel regulations ease.
Tsilidis said, though, it may take as much as 18 months for foreign travelers to set foot here again in organized forms of travel.
Normality, he said, can only resume when people feel it is safe to travel again. That, he said, can only come from health experts and the World Health Organization when they announce a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus.