Athens steels itself to reopen to tourists while infection still sky-high

Greece Letter: Economic devastation pushes country to welcome visitors from May 14th

The death of Prince Philip, husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, and a member of the Greek royal family, was marked publicly here in Corfu, where he was born. The city archives produced his birth certificate (June 10th) and his baptismal certificate (October 24th), which shows that one of his "godfathers" was the Municipality of Corfu in the person of the mayor.

The baptism, into the Greek Orthodox Church, took place in the Church of St George which had been built as the garrison church by the British during their administration and then handed over to the Greek church. The baptism was followed by a celebratory banquet, serving chicken in aspic, fillet of beef, charlotte russe and a cheese risotto.

On the day of Prince Philip's funeral, a ceremony was held by the Orthodox bishop of Corfu in the Church of St Spyridon (the island's patron saint) attended by representatives of the Anglican and Catholic churches. His cousin, former king Constantine, who now lives in Greece in secluded retirement, was unable to attend but sent a wreath.

Less than a month previously, Philip's son, Prince Charles, had made a strong point of the fact that not only was his father a Greek prince but also Philip's mother, Princess Alice, had been active in the resistance in Athens in the second World War, in particular saving Jewish families from extermination. Prince Charles was in Athens as the only major international figure to attend the muted celebrations of the bicentenary of the Greek war of independence.


Flying humbug

Expert opinion cannot agree on precisely when the war of independence began – where, when and by whom – but March 25th, 1821, was chosen as the most appropriate, virtually, because it coincided with the feast of the Annunciation, “evangelising the political liberation of the hellenic nation”.

Like the Easter Rising of 1916, it represented the principle of resurrection. The bicentenary on March 25th this year should have been a massive national celebration of freedom from the Ottoman yoke, but was as “virtual” as the original event.

Turkey, today, remains both a political and a religious problem for Greece. Less than a month after Greece began its bicentennial celebration of its independence, the old occupier remains intransigent in attempting to dominate the eastern Mediterranean. A potentially "diplomatic" meeting between Greece's foreign minister and his Turkish counterpart, together with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, turned into a media fiasco which is still smouldering, with accusations of ill-will, deceit and humbug flying back and forth between Ankara and Athens.

I don't think Greece's foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, expected much from the manoeuvre, which has demonstrated yet again that moving the goalposts is the only game in town, since the rules themselves are written in the disputed waters of the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Greece steels itself for the opening of the tourism season. Greeks have foregone the Easter celebrations on May 1st-2nd for the second year in succession – this should have been the most sacred and socially significant event in the Greek calendar, and its absence underlines the fact that life itself is “virtual” in a society which depends on tourism for its principal income, sense of satisfaction and self-esteem.

Market forces

For people in the tourism business – hoteliers, cafe owners, restaurateurs, tour guides and, in many islands, almost the total population – to have lost 80 per cent of their income in 2020, and possibly face the same scale of loss this year, is not merely economically disastrous but socially and emotionally devastating.

Market forces are dictating the necessity of opening the country to tourism on May 14th, despite the fact that Covid-19 infections are almost out of control in urban centres like Athens and Thessaloniki. Neighbourhood cafes and tavernas are now functioning to restore a vital aspect of the social fabric, but in the more touristic locales owners are waiting to see sufficient visitors before reopening.

At present, numbers of Greeks infected are alarmingly high, with hospitals bulging at the seams – with a total of 11,000 deaths exceeding Ireland’s total on a per capita basis. And in the absence of EU clarity about travel documents, Greece is unsure which visitors it may be welcoming, or under what conditions.

EU nationals and arrivals from the US, UK, the United Arab Emirates and Israel are permitted into the country with proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test, but doubts about reliability have already been fostered by experimental advance cadres of Dutch and German tourists who proved positive.

Greeks are aware of the fact that on June 1st last year the death toll from Covid-19 was less than 200 (a fraction of Ireland’s 1,400) and relatively minuscule compared most European countries. Opening up tourism exponentially increased the numbers of both infections and fatalities, so fears are prevalent that this year’s influx could again send the numbers sky-high.