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Greece is preparing for a tourist influx - but is it ready?

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Chairs with a seat removed are placed around tables at a closed restaurant in the Athens' historic Plaka district, on Friday, April 30, 2021
Chairs with a seat removed are placed around tables at a closed restaurant in the Athens' historic Plaka district, on Friday, April 30, 2021   -   Copyright  Petros Giannakouris/AP
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Kapetanos Giorgos spent much of the winter as normal, catching squid on the small Greek island of Gavdos, not far from the island of Crete.

Now that Greece is set to open its doors to tourists on May 14, Giorgos and his family are preparing to greet an influx of tourists on the terrace of his restaurant.

Greece will allow visitors from both Europe and elsewhere to travel to the country without the need to quarantine after their arrival. Also on May 14, COVID-19 lockdown restrictions will be lifted.

For restauranteurs like Giorgos, the new rules are a lifeline.

Tourism generates over a quarter of Greece’s GDP and employs 16% of its population. Since the start of the pandemic, 65,000 jobs in tourism have been lost.

Gavdos has an off-season population of 100 people and, Giorgos told Euronews, the residents barely noticed the global pandemic during the winter.

"Life went on as usual," he said, "but when summer arrives, everything changes."

The entire population of the island has now been vaccinated against COVID-19 in line with the Greek government's policy of vaccinating residents of small and remote islands.

So far, the population of 32 islands has been vaccinated with both doses, while another 36 islands, with a population of less than 10,000, will be fully vaccinated by May.

Greek Minister of Health Vasilis Kikilias said on May 12 that the communities of all the Greek islands - except large islands such as Crete - will be vaccinated by June.

It hasn't been easy, officials say, delivering thousands of vaccines to far-flung islands scattered around the Aegean Sea.

"Can you imagine transporting hundreds of vials, stored in ice, by plane or boat? It needed a great effort" Nikolaos Komineas, mayor of Astypalea, told Euronews.

Komineas is buoyed by the fact that residents are currently out painting their doors and windows, a tradition before the summer influx of visitors.

"50% of our island economy depends on tourism," he said, "and those who work in other sectors, such as our honey producers, still benefit from the arrival of travelers" Komineas explained.

On Patmos, known for its stunning monastery, residents are among those still waiting. But Iacobos Koutlakis, president of the hoteliers union, told Euronews that the island's COVID-19 cases "could be counted on one hand."

He said that hotel bookings for this season are currently at 50%, which is a positive sign.

Challenges remain

But COVID-19 has not gone away. On May 12, the number of new infections announced by Greek health authorities was 2,489, with 707 new patients intubated.

So far, just 13% of the population - more than one million people - have received both doses of the vaccine, while Greece ranks 8th out of the 27 countries of the European Union in terms of the percentage of fully vaccinated population, the Greek Ministry of Health stated.

Only 63% of people over the 80 age have been vaccinated, while other countries, such as Spain, have already vaccinated the 100% of the same age group.

The problem, officials say, is scepticism about vaccines.

Marios Themistocleous, general secretary at the Ministry of Health, said that some Greeks were more reluctant than other countries to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine because of reports about blood clots. While vaccine misinformation was a major issue.

"The vaccine misinformation spread on the social media so that many elderly people in Greece decided not to get vaccinated" Giannis Galanopoulos, member executive of OENGE, the Federation of hospital doctors in Greece, told Euronews.

"We should be concerned about the vaccine rollout speed, on which the future of the coming months depends, but Greeks are exhausted" the doctor explained.

"Many do not understand what the point of the lockdown was, as it lasted six months and today, we still have many cases of infections. Nonetheless, a new lockdown in the coming months is unlikely, because the economy would not allow it" Galanopoulos said.

Greece's government, however, believes it is ready.

“I often hear the question: last year we went in lockdown with almost zero infections, why today are we opening with so many covid cases? Because 2021 is not 2020” Akis Skertsos, Deputy Minister responsible for the coordination of the Government work, said in a press briefing yesterday.

“Last year the population immunity was almost zero, while right now it is increasing exponentially” he added.

Greece was the first Mediterranean country to reopen to extra EU tourism, but other countries like Spain and Italy - which have better vaccine rollout speed - seem ready to follow in its footsteps.

On the beaches along the coast of Athens, waiting for tourists.

"Before, you had to choose between dying of covid or starving. Now we have hope again, thanks to the vaccine" Manolis Perakis told Euronews, in front of the sandy beach he manages.

"After six months of lockdown, Greeks themselves feel like tourists in their own country. Finally, we can enjoy a souvlaki with a beer as if it were the first time" he said.

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