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Rhodes and Corfu are safe for tourists, Greek minister insists as thousands evacuated

Firefighter Nektarios Kefalas reacts as he tries to extinguish a wildfire burning near the village of Asklipieio, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 24, 2023. REUTERS/Nicolas Economou
Firefighter Nektarios Kefalas tries to extinguish a wildfire burning near the village of Asklipieio, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, on Monday. (Reuters)

British tourists should continue to travel to the fire-ravaged islands of Rhodes and Corfu, Greek officials have said.

About 19,000 people have been evacuated from Rhodes and almost 2,500 from Corfu after wildfires over the weekend.

An estimated 10,000 British tourists have been stranded on the island, with the first repatriation flights landing in the UK late on Sunday and on Monday.

People evacuated from hotels and homes have been forced to spend the night at the airport, in schools, sports centres and even on the street.

Read more: Live updates on Greece fires as Briton tourists start returning home

Despite the chaos, Greece has advised that Rhodes and Corfu remain open for business, urging tourists to continue with their travel plans to the islands.

Greece's tourism minister, Olga Kefalogianni, said on Monday that people with bookings for Rhodes and Corfu should not cancel their plans.

Watch: Foreign Office advice on Rhodes is 'stick close to your tour company'

"It’s particularly important to stress only a small part of the island of Rhodes is affected," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Despite long queues and images of people sleeping on the floor there, she said: "There has been no disruption in the airport."

She said reports that half of Rhodes was affected by wildfires are inaccurate, and that the figure is between 10% and 20%.

Flames burn a hill on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece, on Monday, July 24, 2023. A weeklong wildfire on the Greek island of Rhodes has torn past defenses, forcing more evacuations, as three major fires rage elsewhere in the country fueled by strong winds and successive heat waves. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
Flames burn on a hill on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, Greece, on Monday. (AP)
ATHENS, GREECE - 2016/07/19: MP with New Democracy Olga Kefalogianni talks at the Greek parliament.
Greek legislatotors discus on a first of a 3 day discussion about changes on the election law. (Photo by George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Greece's tourism minister Olga Kefalogianni says tourists should keep coming to Rhodes and Corfu. (Getty Images)

"It is the largest evacuation Greece has ever done and it happened in a matter of hours, but everyone is safe," she added.

Kefalogianni described the situation on Corfu as "not alarming" and not on the same scale as in Rhodes.

On Monday, local Greek officials claimed the fires in Corfu were started by arsonists.

While some British airlines and tour operators have cancelled flights in and out of Rhodes, others, such as easyJet and Ryanair, are operating as normal.

The UK government has stopped short of advising Britons not to travel to the two islands, saying: "If you are planning to travel to any areas affected by wildfires, please check with your travel operator or hotel prior to travel that the area you plan to visit."

Rhodes wildfires. See story FIRE Rhodes. Infographic PA Graphics. An editable version of this graphic is available if required. Please contact graphics@pamediagroup.com.
A map showing the areas of Rhodes affected by wildfires. (PA)
Tourists sleep as they wait for departing planes at the airport, after being evacuated following a wildfire on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 24, 2023. REUTERS/Nicolas Economou
Tourists sleep as they wait for departing planes at Rhodes airport on Monday. (Reuters)

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Monday: “My paramount priority is the safety of British nationals.

“The most important thing is people remain in touch with their tour operators, there are lots of flights going back and forth to be able to bring people home, and if people are in touch with their tour operators they will get the information that they need.”

Earlier, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell gave similar advice.

“What we’re telling people to do is to keep in touch with their tourist company, and that is the right advice," he told Times Radio.

A man sleeps as tourists wait for departing planes at the airport, after being evacuated following a wildfire on the island of Rhodes, Greece, July 24, 2023. REUTERS/Fedja Grulovic
A man sleeps as tourists wait for departing planes at Rhodes airport on Monday. (Reuters)

Asked why the government is refraining from telling people not to go to Rhodes, he said: “It’s important to remember that only 10% of the island is affected by these fires.

"And therefore it is the tourist companies and the holiday experts who are best placed to give guidance on whether or not a family or individuals’ holidays are going to be ruined by these events.”

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacts during a visit of Crofton Park, near Rednal, Birmingham, on July 24, 2023. The Prime Minister has confirmed that the Conservative Westminster Government is on course to meet its target of building one million homes between 2019-24. (Photo by Ben Birchall / POOL / AFP) (Photo by BEN BIRCHALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said British travellers to Greece should keep in touch with their tour operators. (AFP via Getty Images)

But asked if he would go on holiday there at the present time, Mitchell said: “I think I probably wouldn’t.

"But the point is is that if I had booked a holiday I would take advice and would take advice also from the tour operator.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Our advice is focused on the safety of British nationals and enabling people to make an informed decision about the situation on the ground.

“The current situation is impacting on a limited area in Rhodes and whilst it’s right to keep it under review and it’s possible that the advice may change we do not want to act out of proportion to the situation on the ground.”

He said there are “not currently” plans to get the RAF to help people leave.

Watch: First flights rescue British tourists fleeing Rhodes wildfires