Greece at the vanguard of cautious tourism reopening

Greece opened beaches this weekend. It is one of the nations most dependent on tourism, which generates about a fifth of its economic revenue.

Reuters/Costas Baltas
Greeks return to the seashore during the official reopening of beaches following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus, in Athens, Greece, May 16, 2020. Countries globally look to ease restrictions in an attempt to revive their economies.

Greeks flocked to the seaside this weekend when more than 500 beaches reopened, as the country sought to walk the fine line between protecting people from COVID-19 while reviving the tourism sector that many depend on for their livelihoods.

For many in Greece, it was a first foray into a big public venue since the country began easing its lockdown earlier this month, and it also coincided with the first heatwave of the year.

Sun-seekers were required to respect distancing rules, which even stipulated how far umbrellas must be kept apart.

No more than 40 people were allowed per 1,000 square meters (10,750 sq ft), while umbrella poles had to be four meters (13 ft) apart, with canopies no closer than one meter, according to a government-issued manual, complete with diagram.

At Alimos, a popular beach just south of Athens, people queued up from the early morning to nab their spot in the sunshine.

"This is the best thing for us elderly ... to come and relax a bit after being locked in," Yannis Tentomas, who is in his 70s, said as he settled down under an umbrella.

He said he was complying with distancing rules, adding: "It's like a gun to the head."

The manager of the beach, Nikos Venieris, said visitors were following the rules so far and he hoped they would continue to do so during the summer.

"We're traveling an unknown road, and we don't know where it's going to end up," he added.

At a neighboring beach a drone buzzed over sun-loungers, with loudspeakers urging people to keep safe distances from each other.

The lifting of the lockdown comes as countries around Europe and the world look to ease restrictions imposed to curb the pandemic, in an attempt to resurrect their economies.

'TURNING POINT'

Greece has reported a fraction of the COVID-19 cases of neighboring countries – more than 2,800 infections with 160 deaths. From May 4, it began a phased-in easing of the lockdown that had been in place since mid-March.

The country of 11 million people is one of the most dependent in Europe on tourism, which generates about a fifth of its economic output.

Following the reopening of Greek beaches, people will be permitted to attend Church Mass from May 17, while archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, will reopen for visitors on Monday, May 18. From Monday, travel across mainland Greece and to Crete will be allowed, and from May 25 to the islands.

"This is a crucial turning point in our efforts and we must succeed," said Nikos Hardalias, Greece's civil protection minister.

Tourism officials say they hope to welcome back foreign holidaymakers in July.

"The message is that Greece is a very safe and hospitable country. We invite them and are waiting for them to come, as long as they follow the rules," Alimos Mayor Andreas Kondylis said.

Greece's lockdown, plus the shutdown of much of the world, and most air travel, is likely to have a profound effect on a country only just starting to recover from a decade of financial turmoil and austerity.

Authorities expect anything between a 5% and 10% decline in economic output this year, before recovering in 2021.

PORTUGAL'S REOPENING

Portugal’s government plans to reopen beaches on June 6 as it eases confinement measures put in place to contain the coronavirus outbreak, reports Bloomberg.

Rules will include keeping a distance of 1.5 meters (5 feet) between people and signs will indicate how full each beach is, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said at a Lisbon news conference on Friday. Beaches may be closed again if they get too crowded. The government already allowed beach access for some sports.

Tourism, including on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, accounts for about 15% of the economy and 9% of employment. The country has been less affected by the pandemic than Italy or neighboring Spain.

In Indonesia, the island of Bali – a major tourist destination – is emerging as another success story in handling the pandemic. 

Bali’s governing structure of village committees has been credited with stemming the virus’s spread. “The villages have a very strong influence on the community. Whatever the elders in the villages said, people will abide,” Ngurah Wijaya, adviser to the Bali Tourism Board, told Bloomberg News. “This has enabled the government to impose its policies down to the community level effectively.”

But Bali has no plans to allow international visitors to return until October. 

Hawaii authorities are continuing to crack down on tourists who are visiting beaches, shopping and generally flouting strict requirements that they quarantine for 14 days after arriving. On Saturday, it was reported that a New Yorker was arrested after he posted photos of himself on Instagram surfing, sunbathing, and walking around Waikiki at night.  His bail was set at $4,000.

Visitors sign a document agreeing to remain in a hotel room or residence. They aren’t allowed to leave for anything other than medical emergencies. That means no grocery shopping, no strolls on the beach, no hotel housekeeping services. Hawaii currently has no plans to lift the quarantine on non-residents until the end of June. 

This story was reported by Reuters. Reporting By Lefteris Papadimas; Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Pravin Char.

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