Greece has begun deploying police units to holiday island hotspots as the country’s tourism season moves into high gear amid a worrying spread of coronavirus variants.
Authorities moved to beef up police presence on party isles such as Mykonos and Ios as concerns mounted over local entrepreneurs failing to comply with health measures aimed at curbing the pandemic. “The Delta variant has meant that every country is dealing with the fourth wave now and not as expected in November,” the Greek tourism minister Haris Theoharis told the Guardian. “While hotels and family-type venues are implementing protocols diligently, there’s more congestion than we would like to see in bars, especially among the younger crowd ... so we are trying to ensure some balance is kept.”
Some 186 law enforcers have been sent to Mykonos alone, up from the 56 stationed there this time last year.
On Thursday, an additional 30 policemen, backed up by security officials and undercover agents, were dispatched to Ios, the 11-mile-long Cycladic isle popular with younger tourists drawn to its bars, discos and rock clubs.
The Greek deputy civil protection minister, Nikos Hardalias, said Mykonos and Ios were “one step” away from authorities imposing further restrictions, and that the situation on the islands of Zakynthos, Tinos, Lefkada, Santorini, Paros and Rhodes was also worrying.
Greece’s south Aegean islands were marked dark red on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s Covid map on Thursday, meaning all but essential travel to and from the region is discouraged. The cluster of 13 islands includes Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes.
Infection rates have shot up among people aged between 20 and 30 – with most testing asymptomatic in a country that to date has registered over 485,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 13,000 Covid-19 deaths. In contrast to the rest of Europe, Greece’s holiday industry has fared comparatively well in the 10 weeks since the popular destination opened, with hoteliers reporting a noticeable increase in reservations from both Europeans and US travellers.
Arrivals have soared by 130% since last year when the tourist-dependent nation experienced a 75% drop in visitors – even if they still pale next to 2019 when Greece attracted a record 33.1 million people. Tourism revenues last month rose by “more than 400% compared to June last year,” said Theoharis.
“We have made up for some lost ground … around 140,000 visitors from the UK have flown in since 19 July. They are coming in in big numbers though there is still some way to go. Britain is an important market.”
But with the highly transmissible Delta variant also in the ascendant, industry officials speak of “managing the unmanageable” as new challenges emerge daily.
Earlier this month, authorities were forced to impose a week-long curfew and music ban on Mykonos after contagion rates skyrocketed on the “anything goes” island. On Wednesday, the citizens’ protection minister Michalis Chrisochidois warned it was only a matter of time before a similar lockdown was enforced on Ios. “There is now a visible danger that the island will be shut down,” he said, having flown into Ios earlier in the day. “Fines have already been imposed on enterprises which don’t uphold the law and … police who are very active and combative are being dispatched to apply the law and ensure enforcement of measures.”
Theoharis, the tourism minister, said islands Greece had promoted as “Covid-free”, following a campaign to vaccinate entire populations ahead of the country formally accepting tourists, were having a better season. “Smaller islands are fuller than bigger islands,” he said.
This week Greek health officials announced five million people had been vaccinated, still well short of herd immunity being achieved, according to epidemiologists, but a milestone nonetheless. “We’re seeing a fourth wave but no wave at all in terms of hospitalisations and stress on the health system,” said Theoharis. “There is a shift in the pattern of the disease and that requires a shift in mindset as to how we respond to it.”
Tourism accounts for almost 25% of Greek GDP with one in five jobs reliant on the sector. In June the Bank of Greece predicted it would take two to three years for travel and spending to return to pre-pandemic levels, saying revenues for this year were unlikely to exceed 40% of those in 2019 when industry earnings reached an all-time high of 18bn euros.
Reuters contributed to this report