Greece has long been a popular spot for vacationers, the home of tantalizing visions of illustrious summer parties and pristine blue and white sea-front resorts. Before Covid-19, the country of 11 million welcomed upwards of 17 million visitors annually. While European nations, such as France and Germany, closed their borders in January 2021, Greece announced ambitious plans for reopening. Greek Tourist Minister Harry Theocharis envisions allowing vaccinated tourists by the middle of May and general visitors by June 2021. However, such plans have provoked the ire of fellow European nations.
Greece is one of the few developed countries with an economy that remains highly reliant on tourism. The tourism sector accounts for 18 percent of the country’s total GDP and employs 20 percent of the Greek workforce. Before the pandemic, tourism annually contributed some 34 billion euros to the Greek GDP. The Statista Research Department published data in November 2020 that predicted the travel and tourism industries would contribute 52.8 billion euros by 2028 to Greece’s GDP, assuming a global recovery from Covid-19. Theocharis’ aggressive plan for reopening Greek borders, therefore, appears justified. To a debt-laden country with a shrinking economy, an expedited reopening is essential for economic growth.
Reopening enables Greece to reap returns on its pre-pandemic investments. For example, Greece has allocated much of its resources in recent years to developing and expanding the tourism industry. Many resorts and hotels have undergone refurbishment to become more sustainable, even carbon neutral, in coming years. Under the Ramsar Treaty, an international treaty emphasizing national commitments to environmental conservation, Greece has also committed to promoting its national parks and environmental sites. Therefore, some Greeks push for a quicker reopening to take advantage of the recent increase in tourism resources.
However, the country’s sluggish pandemic response has jeopardized such plans. Though Greece kept Covid-19 numbers low in early 2020, the country witnessed a rapid increase in cases in October and entered full lockdown on November 7, 2020. As of April 1, 2021, Greece has reported over 264,000 Covid-19 cases. About a meager 4.67 percent of the population has been vaccinated. Unlike many stores across the U.S., most non-essential Greek businesses remain closed, and a nationwide curfew is enforced from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Greece has received no additional support from other European nations. Contrary to Greece’s perspective, the majority of Europeans exhibit reluctance to resume travel, especially to outside of the EU. On March 25, 2021, European leaders convened to discuss reopening plans. Margaritis Schina, Vice-President of the European Commission, said, “the common path forward requires a safe and sustainable approach for the benefit of all Europeans. In lifting restrictions, we must learn the lessons of 2020 and avoid damaging and costly cycles of opening and closing.” Additionally, Stella Kyriakides, European commissioner for health and food safety, described Europe’s Covid-19 situation as “very challenging” and emphasized the need for Europe to collaborate in coordinating reopening strategies.
In response, the European Commission has asked member states’ tourism and hospitality sectors to cooperate with the Commission’s reopening guidelines. The Commission also charged Europe and the European Committee for Standardization to develop a “seal of sanitation.” The goal of the seal is to ease travelers’ worries and provide a standard all nations must meet before welcoming tourists. The Commission expects the seal to be ready in time for summer travel.
While more economically stable countries push for continued protocol and strict border regulations, for Greece, the time to reopen is now. The country’s economy has suffered for over 40 years, with the tourism industry as one of their few stable sources of revenue. As more of the global population becomes vaccinated, the Greek government has stronger justification when appealing to the EU.