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Greece has announced plans to restart international travel from May 14 and TUI predicts that Crete will be the most popular European destination for Germans, but how do the island's business owners see the coming season?
Struggling to contain rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, Greece has been yo-yoing between hard and soft lockdowns since November 2020. But with more than 20% of the country's gross domestic product derived from tourism, which employs one in five of the Greek workforce, the country's hospitality sector needs to bounce back quickly in order to survive.
The president of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Gloria Guevara, welcomed Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis' announcement on the opening day of ITB Berlin 2021 that tourists will be welcome from May 14, if they are vaccinated, have antibodies or test negative to COVID-19. "This clear roadmap to recovery could reopen the door to a bumper summer of travel for sun-starved holidaymakers," Gloria Guevara commented.
Although Crete is touted by tour operator TUI to be the country's ― and possibly Europe's ― number one destination for Germans this summer, Greece's largest island is still far from ready to welcome tourists. Countrywide there have been more than a million vaccinations, but on this island which counts 600,000 inhabitants and attracts one in five of the country's visitors, only a few thousand have been vaccinated so far, despite Theoharis' confirmation that vaccinating workers in the tourism industry before May 14 will be the country's top priority.
According to recent statistics from Greece's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on seasonal employment in this country, which has the highest unemployment rate in the EU. On Crete, where 55% of islanders are employed in the tourism industry ― and social welfare is extremely limited ― seasonal workers have been badly affected by the closures.
"When we opened last July, I advertised a job in our hotel and I received more than 280 CVs in two days. I had to take the phone off the hook because people were calling and begging me to give them the job ― it was heartbreaking," says Vicky Maltabe, human resources manager at luxury Cretan resort Stella Island.
Seasonal worker Giorgos Zervakis, who makes €1,000 ($1,192) a month as a receptionist and survives from the money he makes harvesting his family's olives in the winter months, is desperate for hotels to open again. "I have to feed my family ― I can't feed them with promises," says the 30-year-old receptionist.
Currently in hard lockdown, Greece is split into two COVID zones ― red, meaning "at risk" and deep red, meaning "very high risk." Like the island's main towns Chania and Rethymnon in the west, Crete's capital Heraklion, which is currently a deep red zone, is deserted: shops are shuttered, bars and restaurants closed and the city's inhabitants are obliged to respect a 7 p.m. curfew. "Life is much better here, but it's still hard to even imagine being able to go for a coffee or a meal again, let alone seeing the streets full of tourists," says Frenchman Patrice Lamouroux, who moved to Greece a month ago to 'escape' lockdown in France.
In the east of the island, however, where there have been fewer cases of COVID-19, business owners are working hard ― repainting shop fronts, freshening up interiors or converting premises ready for the season ahead.
Georgios Kaloutsakis, owner of Abaton Island in the popular east Crete resort of Hersonissos, which was one of the first hotels to open to foreign tourists after Greece's first lockdown, is positive 2021 will be a better season than last year.
"Greece was open in 2020 and we proved that we could offer safe holidays to our guests, even though we had to deal with cancellations and re-bookings the whole summer ― and then the UK said travelers to Crete had to quarantine, which was chaos. We do not foresee achieving the figures of 2019, but we expect to have around 50% of the tourists that we had in 2019," he says.
At George's Bistro on the usually busy main street of Malia, Crete's notorious nightlife resort half an hour drive from capital Heraklion, owner Sofokleos is unsure if he'll open his restaurant, which has been closed since lockdown in November 2020. "It's been worse for us restaurant owners because we have been closed for five months now. This year I just don't know if I will be able to afford to open."
Despite worries over the speed of the vaccine rollout, however, with stars ― including Jennifer Lopez ― flocking to relax on the uncrowded beaches of Greece'slargest island, Crete is still perceived as one of Europe's safest destinations for summer 2021.
"This year we will build on last year's experience to offer safe holidays. We look forward to welcoming our guests and we will make sure that they have a real chance to relax and recover from the stress of this past year," says Georgios Kaloutsakis.