On the Greek island of Rhodes, hoteliers are busily scrubbing, polishing and painting in preparation for a make-or-break tourism season.
Although the season formally starts on May 14, on Monday, (April 19) despite a lockdown, the country opened for travellers from the European Union, the United States, Britain, Serbia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates who will not have to quarantine if they have been vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19.
“We’re preparing the hotel in order to start as soon as the government gives us the green light,” said George Tselios, general manager of Sun Beach Hotel on Rhodes, whose customers are from Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Britain. “We know we expect the final protocols of the hotels that will be followed, we are ready.”
Rhodes, whose season usually runs from March to October, would have started laying out sunbeds and beach umbrellas.
Instead, shuttered luxury resorts towered over a long, sandy, empty coastline. Beach towns normally bursting with crowds of tourists were silent, with boarded up shops, tavernas and bars.
Many have been closed since 2020, when just 7.4 million people visited Greece, down from a record 31.3 million in 2019.
Tourism is vital for the country, which slipped back into recession last year, generating a fifth of its GDP and one in five jobs.
Like many islands, Rhodes depends on it.
Greece says it now has more experience in handling the pandemic, in addition to widespread testing, self-tests, COVID quarantine hotels and plans to quickly vaccinate small islands and tourism workers.
“We have much more tools in our hands and much more data at our disposal. This year we have the vaccines, we have the rapid, we have the self-tests, we have the covid hotels and I believe that we can give, we can offer an even better hospitality and higher standard than even what we did last year,” said George Hatzimarkos, governor of Greece’s most popular region, the south Aegean islands, which besides Rhodes includes Mykonos and Santorini.
Last year, only about half of its 650 hotels opened, the Rhodes hoteliers association said. The number of visitors tumbled to 600,000 from about 2.2 million.
So far, bookings are slow, and mostly for August to October, the president of Rhodes hoteliers, Manolis Markopoulos, said, forecasting a year of last-minute reservations.
“We can understand it because guests really want to be sure that they will fly,” he said.
Markopoulos said the plan was to first open only 20 – 30 percent of the hotels in mid-May.
While Greece fared better than much of Europe in containing the first wave of the pandemic, a continuous rise in infections has forced it to impose several lockdowns as its battered health service cannot cope with the numbers.
Many businesses are getting by on state aid and cannot afford another lost summer, including those of Giannis Chalikias, who manages nine businesses on Rhodes involved in food services, accommodation and entertainment. Only one – a restaurant – is operating, but only for take-away or delivery.
He says all staff have been suspended and receive a sum with which they can just survive on until the summer.
“We’re being patient, we wait day by day for people to get vaccinated, to reach the required percentage so that we can open and have a normal season,” he said.
Blue Sea Hotel owner Ioannis Hatzis said the next months would show if the tourism sector on Rhodes could survive another COVID summer.
“If normalization will be introduced here by June then I think that by July COVID will be in the past, but if that’s not the case then we are facing an unknown environment and its going to be very difficult for businesses,” said Hatzis.