The narrow, stone-paved alleys on the traditional village of Oia, in Santorini, are usually packed with tourists even this time of the year. The Greek island with the most famous sunset view in the world is always a top travel destination. But COVID-19 put the growing popularity of the Greek islands on hold in 2020 and even though the warm Mediterranean weather means the tourist season in Greece usually starts in early April and lasts until late October, the streets are relatively quiet.
With vaccination continuing worldwide, though, and the convenience of rapid tests, Greece is opening up to international travelers May 14, after almost a year, and hopes to recapture its past success. And business owners on two of its most famous islands, Santorini and Mykonos, are expecting the reopening to go with a bang.
Giorgos Dimitrokalis wakes up everyday looking at the magnificent view of the caldera, and although he was born and raised in Santorini, this view of the Aegean Sea never ceases to amaze him. But for the owner of KD Hotels and Resorts and vice president of the Santorini Hoteliers Association, it’s hard to be the only one to enjoy this view. “It feels like a completely different island. Unrecognizable. Last year we were joking that the locals had the chance to enjoy the island for themselves. I hope this summer, things will go back to as it was before the pandemic, because the island has really suffered."
Unlike other places in Greece, islands such as Santorini and Mykonos base the majority of their economy on tourism. In 2019, tourism was a little more than 20 percent of the country’s overall economy , according to the Institute of the Greek Tourism Confederation. It was the best year in a decade.
And then, coronavirus came.
“It was summer outside, but the people out in the streets were as many as if it was winter. There was not even a soul out there. It was surreal,” says Poly Linoxylaki, owner of the Sand Lily boutique at Imerovigli in Santorini.
Desperate not to lose another year, the Greek minister of tourism, Harry Theoharis, announced recently that the government will reopen tourism in Greece from May 14.
There are two types of tourists who visit Santorini, explains Dimitrokalis, who owns 10 hotels all around the island: “At the hotels that are close to the beach, we’ve seen a more increased interest so far this year. Our customers there stay for around seven days, are usually families, and most of them Europeans. At the more central hotels, like the ones at Caldera and Fyra, are usually travelers who come from overseas, such as Americans, Brazilians, Chinese, and Australians, and they usually stay for no longer than three days. They come to see the island, admire the sunset, and leave.”
For Embark Beyond, a luxury travel advisory company based in New York, “Greece and Turkey may be the only European countries open this summer” for Americans, and because of that they suggest to their clients to “reserve now, before the flood gates open and it’s too late."
“What we’ve been told is that the international flights to Greece for tourism will be open from everywhere in the world on May 14. We are just waiting for the officials to tell us what the protocols for this year will be” says Dimitrokalis, who points out that Americans are among the biggest fans of the island.
“Most tourists who visit Santorini are from the U.S. and Australia, and if they won’t be able to come for some reason, I will have a big trouble” says Linoxylaki, who sells clothes and accessories, mostly made by Greek designers. “These are my customers. They support small businesses like mine."
During this time of the year the reservations for summer would normally be at around 70-80 percent, but according to Dimitrokalis, today the number is down to 25-30 percent. “We hope that next month more people will be interested and we expect that by the end of the season we might be able to reach around 50 percent of 2019. We are putting our hopes in last-minute reservations to reach our goal,” he says.
Most of the reservations are starting from mid-summer, but everyone is optimistic. “If the weather is good we expect to expand this year’s season, because we are already losing the first three months” says Dimitrokalis, and that is something Linoxylaki agrees, even though she has her doubts about the reopening: “We are hoping that September and October will be the peak of this season. But I must be honest, I personally don’t believe that we will be able to open up on May 14, as the government said.”
Similar to Santorini, most of the Greek islands suffered their share too last year. Among them, Mykonos, the popular Cycladic island with the bright white houses and wild nightlife.
When Kim Kardashian and her family traveled to Mykonos in 2013 to film the eighth season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kim was pregnant with North and the island was full with paparazzi… and lots of tourists.
Today Iraklis Zisimopoulos, CEO of the Semeli Hospitality Group who hosted the Kardashian family and their crew almost a decade ago, looks back at those days with some nostalgia, but with confidence for the future. “I am sure that they will come back again; coronavirus won’t last forever. It might not be this year, but we see that the dynamic of Mykonos is not lost and we are sure that even better days will come” he says.
Zisimopoulos is also the general secretary of the Mykonos Catering and Entertainment Association, as well as the president of the Association of Businesses and Professionals of Mykonos Town. “I have hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, and everything is shut down,” he says with a bitter smile.
Speaking to the Athens News Agency last September, Konstantinos Koukas, the mayor of the island, said that last season they reached only 30 percent of 2019, and as Zisimopoulos explains: “Last year was catastrophic, but we hope this year will be different. It definitely won’t be anywhere close to a normal season, but for sure it won’t be like 2020."
The most important role in shaping that will be the protocols under which tourists will be able to enter Greece. “So far we know that there are three options: 1) The people who have been already vaccinated, 2) Those who have tested negative the last 48 hours, and 3) Those who have already been sick and now have the antibodies” says Zisimopoulos, a doctor himself.
When it comes to Mykonos though, people don’t travel to the island just for the nice view or to swim in the crystal clear blue sea. They go because they want to have fun and everyone has only one thing on mind… the nightlife!
Mykonos is known worldwide as the “party island” of Greece and a land where you can openly be who you are. Anastasios Kapetanias contributed as much as anybody to this reputation. For the director and founder of XLSIOR Festival, the only gay music festival in Greece and among the top five in the world, last year was the first time that he had to cancel it, since it was first launched in 2009. But he has high hopes for this summer.
“People are thirsty for fun” he says. “We receive lots of emails everyday from people begging us to do the festival this year. They tell us ‘we need to see our friends; we need to feel free again’. Everyone is about to explode; we can’t take it any more."
For the Greek government, nightlife isn’t a top priority and will be one of the last things to open, and under which terms is yet unknown. But for the local economy, this is a huge blow. XLSIOR alone brings to the island more than 30,000 people every summer from all around the world. “We have people coming from the U.S., Brazil, Spain, Israel, and most of them are people who come every year”, explains Kapetanias, who also cooperates with several local businesses like hotels, rent-a-cars, restaurants etc. to assist his clients.
“Last August when the government decided to close all bars and clubs at midnight, all reservations stopped and many canceled,” says Zisimopoulos. The whole situation was completely surreal, as Kapetanias describes it: “People were all around the streets, looking for some villa parties to go and everyone was hiding as if we were in a war. This is not Mykonos."
The Greek government decided to vaccinate all residents on small islands, with under 1,000 population, with some of the first COVID-free islands in Greece including Kastellorizo and Oinousses,
Could a similar plan work for Mykonos, with around 10,000 people? Zisimopoulos is confident it would fix many of their problems: “If all the locals get vaccinated, whatever happens to the island, we will have a strong protective shield. In a normal season, we would have at least 10 reservations per day. Now the maximum is 2. The last 20 days we’ve seen some movement and we have some reservations from the U.K., Israel, and the U.S., where the vaccination goes faster. Most of those reservations are for July and August."
Kapetanias, on the other hand, suggests that a good idea for the reopening of live festivals like his could be the rapid tests. “They could go to a clinic on the island earlier on the same day, do the test and if it is negative they could come with the results and enter. We just need to be super organized, so the people will be completely safe."
And even though no one knows for sure how this summer nightlife will be like, the engines on the island are on and everyone is organizing, hoping they won’t have to cancel again. “Because of the situation we will be able to organize events in dreamy places, where other years it wasn’t possible. This year most of our events will be outdoors as well. Of course we will also be bringing the best DJs, musicians and dancers that we know our audience loves,” Kapetanias says about this year’s event, which has already been announced for August 18-25.
“It will be a year in which we will get a big part of our life and vacations back, and because we have been deprived of so many things this past year, it will make us feel so much better. I really believe there is hope on the horizon,” says Zisimopoulos. Kapetanias concurs: “To be honest, what I want for this summer is to see happy people, who will be laughing, having fun, being safe and would want to come back again next year."