Greece kickstarts its tourism season on Friday, with both the government and travel operators hoping the lure of sun, sand and sea will bring a sorely needed revenue boost after last year's miserable holiday season.
"We are raising anchor," Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis declared as he launched the holiday season Thursday evening from the ancient Greek temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, near Athens.
"We leave behind the dark clouds of fear and insecurity," he added, saying that foreign tourists were eager to return to the country to take in the sunshine and turquoise waters.
The announcement couldn't come soon enough for restaurateurs and cafe owners eagerly preparing for patrons to come back after suffering so long under coronavirus lockdown measures.
"We're hoping for a good season ... and for people to choose our country and our island," said Alexandros Koukourakis as he set up tables and chairs at his restaurant near the old town of Chania, on the island of Crete.
"We are putting behind a difficult period while still taking precautionary measures."
According to government regulations announced on Wednesday, anyone travelling to Greek islands by sea or air must show a vaccination certificate or a negative COVID-19 test result.
Europe's leading tour operator TUI has scheduled 120 flights to Greece until the end of May, with the first six touching down on Friday and another 15 on Saturday.
Some 40 international incoming flights are expected in 14 regional Greek airports on Friday and another 110 on Saturday.
Most islands have less extensive health facilities than the mainland, and an initiative to vaccinate local populations is underway.
Nationwide, nearly four million vaccinations have already been carried out, including some 1.4 million double doses in the country of 10.8 million.
In an early setback, the UK put Greece on its amber travel list, meaning that returning Britons face at least five days in quarantine.
With several restrictions still in place for travellers throughout Europe, Greek hoteliers expect the tourism sector to pick up from late June or early July, alongside stronger vaccination figures.
Hotel business slow
"We have no reservations at the moment and only 15 to 20 percent of the hotels will be operating this Friday, while the rest will open gradually 'til the end of June," said Grigoris Tasios, president of the Greek federation of hoteliers.
The pandemic deeply affected the Greek economy, heavily reliant on the tourism sector which accounts for more than 20 percent of GDP.
Tourism revenue plunged to 4.28 billion euros ($5.0 billion) in 2020 from 18 billion euros in 2019, while tourist arrivals fell 76.5 percent to just 7.4 million, according to the Greek Tourism Confederation Institute (INSETE).
The Greek government, as well as other tourism-dependent southern EU countries, want Brussels to quickly agree on a travel certificate which would allow people who have been vaccinated, have a negative test or antibodies to move without quarantine.
The opening of the tourism sector comes as Greeks will also be allowed to go about freely within the country for the first time since November.
"Last year everything was a blur, now we are entering a different tourist season," said George Segredos, a beach bar owner on Kos island.
"We are aiming to get around half of 2019 revenues," he told AFP.
But not all tourist destinations will be accessible.
The Greek island of Kalymnos remains in strict lockdown owing to scores of recent infections, highlighting how fragile and fluid the situation remains.
"We were preparing to open in early May, getting supplies and hiring personnel and suddenly we are in deep red," said Michalis Petridis, owner of a beach and night bar in Kalymnos.
"This constant change of rules is damaging us," he said.
© 2021 AFP