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Greece opens to tourists, anxious to move on from crisis season

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Greece began opening to tourists on Monday (19 April) with few bookings but hopes for a better season to help make up for a 2020 devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, writes Karolina Tagaris.

On Rhodes island, where most visitors are from abroad, hoteliers are scrubbing, polishing and painting in anticipation of a make-or-break year.

"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, whose customers are from Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Britain.

Greece will formally open on 14 May but starting Monday, tourists from the European Union, the United States, Britain, Serbia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will not quarantine if they are vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19.

Tourism, which generates a fifth of Greece's GDP and one in five jobs, is vital for an economy which had climbed out of a decade-long slump only to slip back into recession last year as COVID-19 struck.

In a normal year, Rhodes would have already laid out the umbrellas for a season that runs from March through October. In mid-April, it resembled a ghost city.

Shuttered luxury resorts towered over a long, sandy, empty coastline. Beach towns normally bursting with crowds of British tourists were silent, with boarded up shops, tavernas and bars.

Many have been closed since 2020, when just 7.4 million people visited Greece, fewer than any year in its decade-long economic crisis and down from a record 31.3 million in 2019.

From hotels to restaurants and daily cruise boats, the many businesses surviving on state aid cannot afford another lost summer.

"Most of them feel the country cannot survive another crisis," Rhodes's deputy mayor for tourism, Konstantinos Taraslias, said.

Nearly 600,000 tourists visited Rhodes last year, down from 2.3 million in 2019. Just over half its 650 hotels opened, the hoteliers' association said.

Sand hills are formed in front of a hotel, in order to be spread on the beach at the beginning of the tourist season, at Ammoudes Beach, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, April 12, 2021.  REUTERS/Louiza Vradi
People stand on Elli Beach, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, April 12, 2021. REUTERS/Louiza Vradi
A man works on the restoration of a resort at Ammoudes Beach, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, April 12, 2021. REUTERS/Louiza Vradi

Greece says it is better placed this summer thanks to widespread testing, quarantine hotels and plans to vaccinate islanders and tourism workers.

"We've done everything within our power to have a better season," said George Hatzimarkos, governor of Greece's most popular region, the south Aegean islands, which besides Rhodes includes Mykonos and Santorini.

"We'll be absolutely ready," by mid-May, Hatzimarkos said.

But bookings are few and most for August to October, said the president of Rhodes' hoteliers, Manolis Markopoulos, forecasting a year of last-minute reservations.

"We can understand it because guests really want to be sure that they will fly," he said. "But that does not mean that we will not get bookings later."

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 to protect its strained health service.

Tourists will be subject to lockdown restrictions, which include night-time curfews. Restaurants and bars have been closed since November.

Giannis Chalikias, who manages nine businesses on Rhodes, said only one is open and struggling to meet the obligations of the remaining eight.

"We're going through an unprecedented situation," he said. "We're waiting day by day for people to get vaccinated... so that we can open and have a normal season."

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EU has not yet ordered more AstraZeneca vaccines, says internal market commissioner

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Syringes are prepared to administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a new mass vaccination centre in WiZink sports arena in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2021. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The European Union has not yet made any new orders for AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccines beyond June when their contract ends, European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton (pictured) said on Sunday (9 May).

Breton also said he expected that the costs of the EU’s recent order for more doses of Pfizer-BioNTech (PFE.N) vaccines would be higher than the earlier versions.

The Commission last month launched legal action against AstraZeneca for not respecting its contract for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and for not having a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries.

"We did not renew the order after June. We’ll see what happens," said Breton, adding that it was "a very good vaccine".

Concerns has risen on potential side-effects of the Anglo-Swedish COVID-19 vaccine.

Europe's medicines regulator said on Friday it is reviewing reports of a rare nerve-degenerating disorder in people who received the shots, a move that comes after it found the vaccine may have caused very rare blood clotting cases. Read more.

Breton said an increase in prices for second generation vaccines could be justified by the extra research required and potential changes to industrial equipment.

The European Union signed a new contract with Pfizer-Biontech to receive 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines for 2021-2023, to cover booster shots, donations and reselling of doses, the European Commission said on Friday (7 May). Read more.

“There may be a little extra cost but I will let the competent authorities unveil it in due course,” he told France Inter radio.

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Hoping to lure back tourists, Greece reopens beaches after lockdown

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With widely spaced sun loungers and regular disinfections, Greece reopened its organised beaches on Saturday as the popular Mediterranean holiday destination eases COVID-19 curbs in preparation for the return of foreign visitors this week.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece's economy and jobs, and - after the worst year on record for the industry last year - the country can ill afford another lost summer. Read more

"We're pinning our hopes on tourism," said Nikos Venieris, who manages a sandy beach in the seafront suburb of Alimos, just outside the capital, Athens, where social distancing measures will remain in place.

"We're one of the places along the Athens riviera ... that receives many tourists so the number of visitors from abroad will play a big role in our finances," he added.

Under current measures, beach managers like Venieris will have to place umbrellas at least four metres (13 feet), carry out regular disinfections and test beach bar employees and other staff for COVID-19.

People enjoy the sun during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
People enjoy the sea during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Greece fared well in keeping the first wave of the pandemic under control last year but a resurgence in cases pushed health services to the limit and prompted authorities to impose a second lockdown in November.

As infections have fallen and vaccinations gathered pace, authorities have steadily eased restrictions, opening bars and restaurants earlier this week.

On Friday, they announced that museums would reopen next week before the lifting of travel restrictions on vaccinated foreign visitors on May 15.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said a combination of widespread testing, immunisation, and the fact that many activities would take place outdoors gave authorities confidence that tourists would be able to visit safely.

For Greek beach lovers, Saturday's reopening of the country's largest beaches was a chance to let off steam after months of lockdown.

"We've been longing for this for six months now, because we're winter swimmers and we've really missed it," said Spiros Linardos, a pensioner, reclining on a sun lounger at Alimos.

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EU calls on US and others to export their vaccines

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the opening ceremony of an EU summit at the Alfandega do Porto Congress Center in Porto, Portugal May 7, 2021. Luis Vieira/Pool via REUTERS

The European Commission called on Friday (7 May) on the United States and other major COVID-19 vaccine producers to export what they make as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property rights to the shots.

Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders that discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the short- to medium-term.

"We should be open to lead this discussion. But when we lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360 degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world," she said.

"The European Union is the only continental or democratic region of this world that is exporting at large scale," von der Leyen said.

She said about 50% of European-produced coronavirus vaccine is exported to almost 90 countries, including those in the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program.

"And we invite all those who engage in the debate of a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region," she said.

Only higher production, removing exports barriers and the sharing of already-ordered vaccines could immediately help fight the pandemic quickly, she said.

"So what is necessary in the short term and the medium term: First of all vaccine sharing. Secondly export of vaccines that are being produced. And the third is investment in the increasing of the capacity to manufacture vaccines."

Von der Leyen said the European Union had started its vaccine sharing mechanism, citing delivery of 615,000 doses to the Western Balkans as an example.

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