Greece will take a first step towards reopening its tourism industry by dropping quarantine rules for travellers from more than 30 nations if they’ve been vaccinated or tested negative for Covid-19.
From next week, incoming citizens from across the European Union and five other countries, including the UK, will no longer be required to self-isolate, officials said. The new regime is expected to come into effect on 19 April, in the run-up to the country formally reopening up its tourism sector from mid-May.
“They are baby steps before the country opens as planned for tourists on 14 May,” a senior tourism ministry official said. “Nine airports will open at the same time that the restriction is lifted.”
Passengers from the 27-member EU, as well as the US, Britain, Serbia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, will be able to fly into airports in popular destinations without being forced to go into isolation on arrival – provided they meet the conditions.
“Under the plan, airports will reopen in Kos, Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes, Corfu, Athens, Thessaloniki and Chania and Heraklion on Crete,” she said. “We’re not expecting tourists to start arriving en masse but the system needs to be tested. It can’t be switched on, in one go, overnight.”
More than 20% of the country’s entire GDP is derived from tourism, on which one in five jobs depend.
With the Greek economy so reliant on the sector, and only gradually recovering from a near decade-long debt crisis, Athens has aggressively pursued steps to re-energise the industry, following unprecedented losses because of the pandemic last year.
The centre-right government has championed the idea of vaccine passports to encourage EU-wide travel and is in bilateral talks with a host of other countries in the hope of striking individual travel arrangements.
After a landmark deal with Israel, it lifted a one-week quarantine rule over Easter for Israeli travellers who had either tested negative or had vaccination certificates.
The tourism ministry official, who was accompanying the Greek tourism minister Haris Theoharis on a trip to Moscow, said Athens was also working on agreements with international tour operators. “We’re here to talk to them,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “A similar trip is lined up to America later this month.”
Comparatively, Greece has fared better than the rest of Europe – registering more than 300,000 coronavirus cases and 9,000 Covid-19 deaths – although, in recent weeks, it has struggled to suppress a rise in infections.
This week, in an experiment devised by travel industry experts, 189 Dutch tourists flew into Rhodes, trading lockdown in the Netherlands for eight days of voluntary confinement in a luxury beach resort.
The holidaymakers are barred from leaving their hotel or even stepping onto the beach it overlooks. The ‘pilot programme’ is seen as a test run of ‘safe’ holidays being arranged in the age of Covid-19.
But while bookings are on the increase, with industry experts on ‘Covid-free’ islands reporting a rise in reservations from June, caution continues to prevail. Only 700 Israeli tourists took up the offer of quarantine-free travel earlier this month with officials attributing the low turnout to the strict restrictions still in place in Greece, where takeaways are thriving but bars and restaurants remain closed.
Like other EU states, the country has felt the effect of the slow vaccine rollout, with 2m shots being administered so far. Foreigners who are permanent residents have faced bureaucratic hurdles to have the jab at all, with elderly people and medically vulnerable being bypassed in the process.
On Wednesday, the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned that it was still too early to lift curbs on movement. “The goal is to arrive at a safe [Orthodox] Easter and an even freer summer,” he told his parliamentary group. “The threat continues to remain and for that reason, as we have shown, we are moving forward step-by-step once, every week, we have evaluated the epidemiological data with experts.”