“NO NEED TO need to self-isolate. Maybe try to stay away from crowds tonight, if you can.” Did the official at Athens airport wink as he waved through your correspondent and companion? All that was required to enter the country was a quick throat swab taken by a pair of harried doctors behind makeshift screens. “If it’s positive, we’ll call you,” said the official. “If not, we won’t. We probably won’t.”
For a country burdened by creaky governments and crippling debts, Greece has handled the covid-19 pandemic surprisingly well. Its gregarious citizens, not known for instinctive trust in authority, surprised even themselves by adhering scrupulously to one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. The country has recorded fewer than 201 deaths; its underfunded hospitals were never overwhelmed.
Yet the pandemic has found another way to wreak havoc: by keeping away the summer visitors who prop up the economy. Tourism accounts for almost one-fifth of national output. Its wrecking will leave Greece facing a 9% drop in GDP this year, according to the European Commission, worse than the EU average. “It’s sad, it’s bad, it’s just unbearable,” said a travel agent confronting an empty order book in Skopelos, an island in the Sporades archipelago where we spent a week. Elena, our landlady, saw three months of Airbnb bookings evaporate virtually overnight. Britons, usually reliable visitors, have been kept away by special entry restrictions (Stanley Johnson, the father of Britain’s prime minister, effected a daring mission to his villa on the nearby Pelion peninsula via the Bulgarian land border.) Germans face fewer restrictions but appear to be putting safety first. Serbs, who have been flocking to the island in recent years, have been suddenly banned from Greece, after a surge in covid cases. Overall arrivals at Athens airport are down by 75% year on year.
Those who make it in find the stuff of dreams: high-season Greece without the crowds. A blissfully quiet Acropolis. Deserted beaches that guidebooks usually warned against visiting in summer. There are upgrades, discounts and deals galore. Up in Meteora, an extraordinary assembly of mountain-top monasteries in Greece’s north, the coach-tour brigade has been replaced largely by armies of the faithful, finally able to kiss the Orthodox icons in peace. There, reading over dinner, your correspondent encountered the doleful complaints of Patrick Leigh Fermor, a Hellenophile travel author writing in the 1960s, that mass tourism was killing Greece. Half a century later the country faces the opposite danger.
There are hints of the melancholy that engulfs tourist spots out of season: stacked beach umbrellas, shuttered restaurants. A vague air of ennui has settled among some islanders, for whom the usually dependable annual rhythm—a fat summer that provides for a lean winter—has been violently put out of joint. Many fear they will struggle to pay their bills in the winter. Government support programmes are hopelessly inadequate. The EU’s leaders have agreed on a covid recovery fund that could channel billions from relatively unscathed countries like Germany to those walloped, like Greece. But the money will not start flowing earlier than next year.
All this after a harsh decade of austerity and bail-outs that has left Greece with Europe’s highest unemployment rate and a brutal brain drain. Thanks in part to unrest in other Mediterranean countries, tourism has been a bright spot until now; a record 33m foreigners visited last year. Greek governments even tried (in vain) to convince their euro-zone creditors to maintain a lower VAT rate on the islands, such is their importance. But covid has turned that dependency into a curse, leaving the government with no good options other than to open up as summer approached.
Like most Greek islands, Skopelos has remained covid-free. The islanders nevertheless follow the rules as strictly as mainlanders: cuts to ferry services have anyway enforced de-facto quarantines. The more optimistic have not yet written off the summer. Bookings are starting to dribble in again for Elena’s villa: some Romanians, a gaggle of mainland Greeks, even some Britons (flight restrictions from Britain were lifted on July 15th). So there’s hope? “As long as the borders don’t go up again,” Elena shrugs. Alas, there is more ill news: the government is tightening land borders and considering reimposing some restrictions as covid cases have started to climb again. Tourists were responsible for most of the new infections.
By The Economist https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/07/25/the-greece-of-dreams-and-nightmares