It was meant to be the moment when Greece “welcomed the world”. But in another about-turn, travellers on flights from the UK will not be accepted when the Mediterranean country reopens to tourism on Monday.
Bowing to new advice from the EU, Athens announced on Friday that the suspension of air links with Britain, in effect since March, will continue to be enforced until 30 June.
“The ban [on passenger flights from] Great Britain remains in place” for the next two weeks,” the tourism minister, Harry Theoharis, said in a televised presentation where health policies bolstering medical care on islands were formally unveiled.
Greek officials told the Guardian the decision was in line with the EU commission’s latest recommendation that travel restrictions at the bloc’s external borders be phased out gradually and in “a strictly coordinated” manner. UK passenger flights are expected to be reinstated from 1 July onwards.
In a surprise move that appeared to be motivated by Athens’ announcement that international flights to the Greek capital and Thessaloniki could resume from 15 June, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, said on Thursday the EU was now advising that travel restrictions on non-essential travel be prolonged until 30 June.
The tourist-dependent country had previously declared that regular passenger flights to its two main airports could restart in a “bridge phase” from 15-30 June. International air links would resume nationwide on 1 July, three months after restrictions were imposed to prevent the spread of the novel virus. “These were EU recommendations, we had to go along with them,” said a senior government source.
In an effort to contain the pandemic amid mounting concerns among Greek epidemiologists of the virus being imported, it was also announced that all passengers from Italy, Spain and the Netherlands would undergo tests upon arrival as the country prepares for foreign visitors for the first time since the Covid-19 lockdown in March. Until 30 June, tourists from Italy, Spain and the Netherlands will only be able to fly into Athens.
A recent spike in confirmed coronavirus cases, described as “worrying” by infectious disease experts advising the government, has been attributed in part to travellers undergoing mandatory tests upon arrival.
“Our goal is for Greece to remain a safe country looking forward to the tourism season,” said the health minister, Vassilis Kikilias.
Greek authorities say arrivals who test positive will have to quarantine for 14 days at a designated hotel paid by the Greek state.
With fewer than 190 coronavirus deaths among 11 million residents, the Mediterranean country is looking to market itself as a healthy holiday destination.
Tourism is a crucial part of the Greek economy, accounting for 20% of its gross domestic product and an even larger proportion of itsjobs. UK tourists, after Germans the country’s main market, spend more than those from any other nation.
Seasonal hotels are to reopen on 15 June, two weeks after all-year hotels returned to business. Hotel staff will be subject to regular tests, as will guests.
On popular islands “Covid-19 rooms” have also been set aside to quarantine anyone testing positive for the virus, and each hotel has to have a contracted physician on call.
In 2019, Greece posted a record year with over 34 million visitors, but operators say a realistic goal for this season is just a third of that number.