Greece launches ‘free’ holidays for tourists who fled 2023 Rhodes wildfires

In a decision tourism officials call a world first, up to 25,000 affected holidaymakers will be eligible for compensation

It has required new legislation and navigation of copious red tape but nine months after wildfires devastated Rhodes, Greece has launched the first “free” holidays for thousands of tourists forced to flee the island.

In a decision tourism officials call a world first, up to 25,000 affected holidaymakers will, as of this week, be eligible for compensation.

“The scheme is up and running as the prime minister promised,” the Greek tourism ministry’s general secretary, Myron Flouris, told the Guardian. “It’s been a very complicated process not least, I think, because we’re the first country in the world to do this.”

Under the programme, people who stayed in hotels that were evacuated because of the July fires will be able to redeem e-vouchers worth up to €500 to cover the accommodation charges of a week-long stay. The initiative will be run in two phases: between now and 31 May and 1 October to 15 November.


Take-up has already been strong, tourism officials in Rhodes say, with more than 5,000 holidaymakers enrolling on the scheme’s register of beneficiaries. “Anyone who was staying in areas that were affected by the fires is eligible,” said Yannis Papavasiliou, who heads the island’s union of hoteliers. “The response has been very good and we are told will be even stronger come the autumn.”

He said compensation would reflect the amount clients originally paid to tour operators and would range from €300 to €500. “It will apply only to hotels, not Airbnb-style private accommodation. At the end of the day Greece is making good on its promise to recompense all those who lost their holidays because of climate change.”

The country’s centre-right government, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, announced the initiative on ITV’s Good Morning Britain within days of thousands of stranded holidaymakers being forced to cut short their trips as the wildfires raged. Most of those put on repatriation flights were Britons.

Visiting the island on Monday, Mitsotakis, who ordered the mass evacuation as a preventive measure, said wildfires would inevitably increase as a result of the climate emergency. “All of the Mediterranean is a hotspot for climate change. That, statistically, means we will have more fires and probably more floods,” he told a conference organised in Rhodes by the European Travel Commission under the fitting title: EU Tourism: Resilience in the Era of the Climate Crisis.

What mattered most was human life, the Greek leader said. “It wasn’t easy … to evacuate 25,000 visitors but we did it safely and we are very proud of the fact that we managed to confront this crisis essentially without mourning [the loss] of human life.”

One UK holidaymaker planning to take up the offer is Sara van Oostrum, a business owner from Hampshire, and her partner, though she said her daughter would not be joining as she felt traumatised by the experience. “We thought at the time our daughter was dealing really well, but on reflection children are funny things, they’re like sponges and take in everything and it doesn’t come out till afterwards – she doesn’t want to return,” she said.

Last August, the family were evacuated from a smoke-filled hotel in which they were handed masks and wet towels to prevent inhalation, before walking for four hours in 34C heat to another hotel, from which they were also evacuated as it became surrounded by flames. They spent the night sleeping on a floor, and the following day learned that they had to wait three days for a repatriation flight.

Since the Greek government announced the initiative last year, Van Oostrum has been messaging her tour operator, Tui, and was only recently able to get further information about the voucher. She is confused by the terms of the offer, including which hotels will be available, whether she will receive a free trip or a discount, and whether it covers children.

She said the couple had “mixed feelings” about whether to return to the hotel and beach they stayed at. “We’d probably prefer to stay elsewhere on the island to move on from the whole experience,” she said, adding: “They want to encourage people back, which is nice. We’ll take up the offer, and we’ll spend money on the island.”

Although many UK holidaymakers visit Rhodes with tour operators, including Jet2, TUI and Thomas Cook, they are expected to liaise directly with the Greek government to obtain their vouchers. TUI said its customers should individually contact the Greek government online, while Thomas Cook said the process was managed by the Greek tourist board, Rhodes authorities and participating hoteliers, rather than its team. - The Guardian