Greece is opening to vaccinated American travelers in mid-May, offering what the country’s tourism minister said could be a summertime respite from the stresses of the pandemic while also observing safety precautions learned throughout the last year.
Harry Theoharis, the top tourism official for the Greek government, visited Atlanta last week to build momentum and offer clarity around the May 14 opening to key tourism source markets, which also includes travelers who have obtained negative PCR tests.
While Greece maintains restrictions on internal movements for its citizens, the plan to welcome foreigners is meant to shore up a battered tourism sector that accounts for an estimated 20 percent of the Greek economy.
Mr. Theoharis told Global Atlanta that he hopes will set the tone for responsible travel around the globe. As if on cue, the European Union signaled a day after he left Atlanta that it would aim to open to Americans by this summer.
“This is not about Greece gaining market share. This is about everyone restarting that trust,” Mr. Theoharis said. “We are saying there is a system. We put it in the public domain, we want others to copy it. We believe it’s safe. We have the data to back it up. Of course every country makes its own sovereign decisions, but we believe that this is the way to move forward.”
Amid a “timid opening” last summer after the crest of the first COVID-19 wave in Europe, Mr. Karis said Greece was able to avoid a tourism-related surge in cases. The second wave didn’t arrive until the fall, long after that first upswing in travel.
But this year, it’s even better armed with “three ingredients” that weren’t in the arsenal before: another year’s worth of health data, an ample supply of rapid tests, and vaccinations — both among travelers and workers in the tourism sector, who have been prioritized during a rollout that so far has covered about 10 percent of Greek citizens.
On top of that, Greece has a five-point safety plan that includes targeted rapid testing upon arrival at Greek airports, where algorithms will weigh positive case rates from travelers’ origin countries and positive test rates at the border to determine whom to test and how frequently. In the event a traveler tests positive, a quarantine is required, but it can be carried out at same tier of accommodations — and often in the same hotel — they’d already booked. Social distancing rules are also still in place.
“This vacation is not the same as 2019. There are still restrictions in terms of social distancing (essentially mask wearing) and hygiene requirements,” he said. “Those have worked very well. Our private sector implemented them in exemplary fashion, like hotels, etc. So we’ll continue with that. We’re updating them with the new knowledge that we have — slight changes — but effectively (they are doing) what we expected from them.”
Greece is not requiring anything more than a vaccination card as proof that Americans have received their shots. While the country helped initiate discussion on an EU-wide standard for recognizing vaccine validity across countries — so-called “vaccine passports” — a final determination will likely come after the May 14 opening, which the Greek government set in stone to “provide clarity to the market.” A former software engineer, Mr. Theoharis described the run-up to the opening as a sort of beta test where the kinks can be worked out.
With a patchwork of travel restrictions in place across the normally borderless Schengen area, where the incidence of COVID-19 varies widely by country, Mr. Karis recommends avoiding layovers where possible.
That will become easier for Atlantans July 2, when Delta Air Lines restarts its nonstop Atlanta-Athens flight following the May 28 opening of its initial route to Greece from New York-JFK. A second JFK route will start on the same day as the Atlanta flight. United Airlines is also launching a seasonal flight in July.
While Mr. Theoharis believes pent-up demand is there, Greece is focusing more heavily on the experience of the tourists who do come in a year that is still expected to be down overall, even with hotels open at 95 percent as the industry grasps at recovery.
“We do not aim for quantity in terms of revenue or number of people that come in now. Just quality. And quality for us means to have the ability to travel if you want to, and to be safe throughout the journey, door to door, and go back to your loved ones and relatives, safe and sound,” he said.
Realistically, that means those who do come will be able to see the country’s storied historical sites with “the crowds of the ‘90s,” he said.
But the most important aspect is setting the tone for the world, providing “service that can restore your balance — mentally and otherwise” and offer escape from “calamities of life” that have grown so prominent for so many in the past year.
“Our duty is to show that this can be done, and also to provide it to the people that choose to come Greece. That’s why our motto this year is ‘All you want is Greece.’ And if you note on that motto, Greece is the last word. Greece is not in the forefront. ‘You’ is the important word here, and how you manage your needs.”
Greece is celebrating its 200th year of independence throughout 2021, which Mr. Theoharis said would lead to special events and exhibitions that can be enjoyed by Greeks and foreigners alike.
The Greek fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 was inspired by the American and French revolutions, an example of ideas returning to the culture that served as the ancient cradle of democracy, like an echo or a word loaned to another language.
“We gave those liberal values, democracy, to the U.S. and to the other countries, while we were under conditions that did not allow them to flourish. And then the same values came back to us and they gave us the courage and the strength to fight the successful fight.”
While U.S. still requires proof of a negative PCR test to get back into the country. Mr. Theoharis said that while he hopes the U.S. will waive that rule in favor of proof of vaccination, Greek hotels have contractual arrangements with labs and can fulfill travelers’ requirements.
Mr. Theoharis was hosted in Atlanta by new Greek Consul Theodoros Dimoupolos, who has made tourism and educational exchange a centerpiece of his outreach since his Atlanta tenure began in November.
Read an interview with the consul: Greek Independence: Ancient Civilization Marks 200 Years of Statehood Across the South