Despite risks, Greek islands keen to reopen to tourists

Business owners and local officials on the Greek island of Mykonos, a popular draw for celebrities, club-goers, and high rollers, say they are keen to reopen for business despite the threat of COVID-19 posed by international travel

MYKONOS, Greece -- The Greek island of Mykonos' newest bar-restaurant, Pelican, seemed to appear from nowhere.

Tables, light fixtures and staff members with matching black face masks were still being slotted into place as Greeks visiting the island for a long holiday weekend trickled in to check out the place. The owner expects a slow slummer but says he's in a hurry to get back to business.

Greece is, too.

Pelican's owner, Vasilis Theodorou, has a view of the situation that is more steadfast than starry-eyed. Mykonos would normally be packed in early June, but it's beaches were empty. Tourism might be down by as much as 80% this year, “so we’re waiting for the 20%, and we’re happy,” Theodorou said.

“No matter how much we wish for it and want it, it won’t be more than that," he said. "We expect that tourists from central Europe will come first, and hopefully Americans at a later stage. They are our best customers.”

“We don’t know the real impact of (a truncated tourist season) on GDP,” he said, “A lot will depend on whether people feel comfortable to travel and whether we can project Greece as a safe destination.”

Timely and strictly enforced lockdown measures have so far kept the infection rate in Greece low and the death toll below 200. But reopening means islands — many with only basic health facilities and previously sheltered from the outbreak on the Greek mainland — will again be receiving visitors from around the world far in excess of the local population.

Mykonos Mayor Konstantinos Koukas told the AP that islanders feel prepared and have clear government guidelines.

“We want to open back up and we are heading into the 2020 season with optimism,” he said. “But we are fully aware that ... (it) will be nothing like the season in 2019 — and hopefully nothing like the season in 2021.”

An island that to many epitomizes high-life and hedonism, Mykonos at this time of year would normally have high-paying customers spilling out of the bars and competing with cruise ship passengers for restaurant tables. VIP watchers have spotted pop star Katy Perry, soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo and other celebrities in recent summers.

This year, rented cars fill fenced-off lots, and most stores remain padlocked. Stray cats and the island’s mascot, a large, light pink pelican, roam the streets for company.

Mosaic artist Irene Syrianou has kept her workshop open despite the lack of customers. “We watch the news and hope for the best,” she says, cracking pieces of marble into chips with a hammer.

“Nearly all my customers are American, whether it’s buying pieces of art, making orders online, or attending classes I give during the summer,” she said, before adding with a chuckle: “So it’s going to be a tough year. But I’m an artist and I’ve gone hungry before.”

The government's reopening policy has been criticized by the left-wing Syriza party, which argued tougher controls should be kept in place and arrivals limited to those recently tested in their countries of origin.

Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias insisted Friday that a safety net had been built for the islands — with connections to each other and to mainland hospitals for testing and health evacuations. Doctors and support staff will be deployed with the help of more than 100 mobile units in cars and speed boats. The Health Ministry will also have 11 futuristic-looking “transit capsules” for patients heading to intensive care facilities.

Greece’s gamble follows a decade of tourism growth and increasing reliance on the industry, with annual visitor numbers more than doubling since 2010 to 34 million last year and revenue up 80% to some 18 billion euros ($20.2 billion).

During many of those years, the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and exit from the euro currency bloc, while Greeks endured harsh economic austerity in return for three international bailouts.

Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis, once Greece’s top official for tax and revenues, said Friday that the country is determined to support its tourism industry.

“We’re sending a clear message to the world's traveling public that we won’t take a step back, either in health safeguards or in opening up the country.”

And as the prime minister noted Saturday, there's always next year.

“Hopefully in 2021, we’ll have a vaccine; 2021 will be a bumper year,” Mitsotakis said. ——— Iliana Mier on Mykonos and Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed. ——— Follow Gatopoulos at