By Elena Becatoros
The picturesque seaside village of Kokkari on the Greek island of Samos is unusually quiet for this time of year. Sunbeds on its long pebble beach lie mostly empty; customers in the shops are few and far between.
About a month after Greece officially opened to international visitors, the uncertainty of travel during a pandemic is still taking its toll on the country’s vital tourist industry.
Greece’s travel receipts fell more than 75% last year compared with 2019, dropping from 18.2 billion euros to 4.3 billion euros. The government says it hopes to reach half the 2019 visitor level this year.
But the season’s start has been slow. Business owners are putting on a brave face, opening hotels, shops and restaurants, hoping the season will pick up as the summer wears on, vaccine drives speed up and confidence in travel increases.
Greece was one of the first European Union countries to declare itself open to tourism this year, allowing visitors in from mid-May with either a negative coronavirus test, proof of vaccination or proof of recent recovery from Covid-19. Apart from accepting EU-approved vaccine certificates, it also recognizes China’s and Russia’s vaccines.
But in a shifting landscape where countries’ travel rules for their own nationals keep changing, the uncertainty has made many hesitant to make holiday bookings.
“The situation is really liquid right now,” said Alexandros Malagaris, who runs two hotels and a scuba diving center in Kokkari. “Of course, tourism is very sensitive to everything that happens in the world, and the pandemic is a really serious situation.”
Although demand at his dive center was already high, hotel bookings were low. “But we are confident that come July they will pick up,” he said. “We are already looking forward to a really strong August and September and it seems that our season will be extended till the middle of October.”
His hopes were echoed by other Samos business owners looking to offset last year’s losses. Beyond the pandemic, the island also faced damage from a powerful October earthquake and a severe storm in February.
Petra Marheinecke, a German woman who has run a gift and garment store in Kokkari since 1994, opened her shop in early June.
“But it’s really not worth it to open. Many shops are closed, and because of the earthquake (some of the) shops are broken, completely broken, and it’s not busy at all,” she said. “We opened to survive, to pay our rent, to pay the people which are working with us, my staff. But of course, I hope it’s getting better.”
Marheinecke used to employ four people, but she’s been forced to cut back to just one and shorten her opening hours to make ends meet until business picks up, she said.
In early June, hotels were operating at around 20-25% capacity on average, said Manos Vallis, president of the Samos hoteliers’ association and head of the Doryssa Hotels and Resorts group, which runs six hotels and has a seventh under construction. But there was optimism that would increase, with more last-minute bookings than usual and Greeks expected in August. Vallis estimated the year would close with around 65% hotel capacity.
“This year, I believe no hotelier opened their hotel for profit. We all opened our hotels because we had to open, because you understand that if you’re shut after a year, you’re off the market,” said Vallis. “We’ll be forgotten both as a destination and as hotels.”
For some visitors, however, the lack of crowds was part of the attraction.
“I won’t hide it, we prefer it when it’s quieter,” said Alain Dumeslil, who wandered down to the cove of Agios Isidoros with his wife Corinne after swimming in the turquoise sea nearby. From Nice in France, the couple frequently visit Greece in late September when most tourists have left.
“Now, I’d say it’s still quiet,” he said. “But you can feel that people are preparing. The restaurant owners are repainting their chairs, the terraces are being organized — we can see the potential of Samos.”
Business owners said many visitors so far were people who vacation on Samos every year.
Thanassis Safis, who runs a restaurant in Kokkari harbor, said repeat customers he was in touch with were waiting for the travel situation to stabilize.
“There is the will. It’s the flights that aren’t available,” he said.
For now, his restaurant is only open for dinner on weekdays, instead of from lunch onward. But he’s managing to fill nearly all his tables.
As a young entrepreneur in his 30s who launched his restaurant in 2015 at the height of Greece’s financial crisis, he said he remains optimistic.
“We’ve been through many difficulties but we’re always positive,” he said. “It was very difficult in 2015 but we were very patient, and we endured, and we succeeded. It needs patience and a lot of willpower.”