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Is it safe to travel to Greece? Tourism minister makes plea to visitors as wildfires rage

Evacuees wait to board on buses as they leave their hotel during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece
Evacuees wait to board on buses as they leave their hotel during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes, Greece Copyright Argyris Mantikos/AP
Copyright Argyris Mantikos/AP
By Daniel Harper
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As thousands are evacuated from the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu, there are concerns over the future of Greece’s future tourist industry as sweltering heat and future wildfires could hinder the viability of Greek tourism.

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As wildfires sweep across Greece the effect on tourism is being felt.

The industry accounts for a large part of the country’s GDP, making up 18.5 per cent of the Greek economy last year.

Fires on the islands of Corfu and Rhodes have already seen mass evacuations of tourists. In Rhodes, 10 per cent of the island's hotel capacity has been effectively shut down due to risks to both locals and holiday goers.

Last weekend saw 19,000 people, mostly tourists, evacuated from the island in the largest evacuation due to fire in Greece ever. On the western island of Corfu, 2,000 people were relocated by land and sea away from fire risk areas.

How long could wildfires continue in Greece?

Although wildfires are common within Greece during the summer, Europe’s scorching heatwave - causing dry conditions - and high winds have caused many blazes to start all at once.

“Temperature and wind have definitely enabled these fires, and conditions like these are becoming far more likely with climate change,” Dr Mathew Jones, researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UK, explains to Euronews Travel.

“Cooler weather will help [quell the fires], so to some extent we are hoping for a shift in the jet stream."

“Ultimately, the cause of the fire will go down as arson, but it’s changing weather under climate change that is producing more frequent opportunities for events like these.”

The fires on Rhodes and Corfu are just two out of many that the country is battling. Fires are also raging in other parts of the country such as Viotia, a region northwest of Athens, and the island of Evia on the Attic Peninsula, with 64 new fires recorded across the country on Sunday alone.

Temperatures are expected to drop noticeably in most of the country on Thursday, though are expected to pick back up in Rhodes and Corfu in the following days, according to the Hellenic National Meteorological Service (HNMS).

Petros Giannakouris/AP
German tourists take water from a swimming pool of a hotel as they try to extinguish a fire near the seaside resort of Lindos, on the Aegean Sea island of RhodesPetros Giannakouris/AP

For now, tourists are cautious of flying to seriously fire-affected areas

In Rhodes, hotels in areas unaffected by wildfires are still feeling their impact.

“Today, travellers fear the unknown, but once the fire is totally extinguished, tourism will return to normal,” predicts a spokesperson of Dionysos Hotel in Ialysos, Rhodes.

They predict recovery will be slower for parts of the island ravaged by fires: “That is in the north. In the south, it will take a bit more time.”

Some airlines have cancelled flights or offered alternative bookings to other destinations instead of Rhodes due to the fires.

British airline Jet2 has cancelled all flights to the island until 30 July. Similarly, European travel company Tui has halted all flights to Rhodes until 28 July, and travel to the fire-affected areas won’t be resumed until 30 July.

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Tui has also offered those who were set to fly to Rhodes the option to take an alternate holiday with no amendment fees and a full refund if they cancel.

Germans and British make up the majority of tourists on the island.

According to the Greek Travel Pages, 20,000 German holidaymakers have been affected, many returning to Germany or relocated to other accommodation. While the British Foreign Office has deployed a team to support travel operators in bringing tourists home.

The UK Foreign Ministry updated its travel advice regarding Greece on Sunday. It has not advised against travel to fire-affected areas, but urges travellers to check with their travel operators and hotels before departing.

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Greece remains safe for visitors, says Tourism Minister

Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis described the country’s firefighters as being ‘at war’ during a parliamentary session on Monday.

But Tourism Minister Olga Kefalogianni has emphasised that the majority of the country, including most parts of the affected islands, remains safe for tourists.

“As a Mediterranean country we are facing the effects of climate change and must respond to all the new challenges ahead of us,” Kefalogianni said in a meeting on Tuesday with the Greek National Tourism Organisation and the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels.

Kefalogianni described the islands as “uniquely beautiful and a safe destination”, hoping not to further dissuade tourists from visiting.

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Greek airline Sky Express has continued to operate flights to and from Rhodes International Airport Diagoras as scheduled.

Is tourism in the rest of Greece affected by wildfires and heat?

As the temperatures in parts of mainland Greece reach up to 45C some tourists have second-guessed their holiday plans to the country.

One Reddit user offered a three-night, paid for stay in Athens on the Greece Travel subreddit, saying they had changed their plans because of the intense heat.

“It already has impacted tourism widely, and not just in Greece, but across the southern part of Europe. It's just been so incredibly hot,” Doug Lansky, a tourism expert based in Sweden, told National Public Radio.

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Although Kefalogianni has reassured visitors that ‘safety comes first’, some travellers are sceptical that even without the fires it still may be too hot.

“There are heavy fires every year, but the temperature is extreme. I don’t feel super comfortable but it’s not at the stage that I would cancel,” one German tourist travelling to an island near Athens told Euronews Travel.

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