On Wednesday, Greek Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis told CNN he is proud of how Greece managed to reopen to tourism, especially under such adverse conditions because of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Here on Crete citizens facing the potential for a new lockdown are not so thrilled. And to make matters worse, the official narrative does not add up.
Speaking with host Richard Quest on CNN’s show “Quest Means Business,” the tourism minister iterated that the plan for reopening tourism in Greece was implemented with targeted strict measures are being taken where necessary. Minister Theoharis said:
“When we opened our economy, obviously we expected and we expect the number of cases to go up. We are seeing a second wave in all the countries… People in the summer relax a bit more and it is understandable that the cases would rise. Our measures seem to be effective and we have taken some places off the restrictions list… It is a very difficult process and we are monitoring it daily.”
I am surprised Richard Quest did not ask the tourism minister if the second wave of coronavirus is not the Sun’s fault. Instead, he quizzed the tourism chief about the recent TUI flight that carried Covid-19-positive passengers from Greece to the UK, underlining that the incident proves how difficult it is for Greece to keep its tourism industry open at such a difficult period. At this point Theoharis replied:
“We opened with very hard work and with a lot of cooperation from every part of the industry and of course the public sector… We managed to open and we managed to keep the engines running. I’m very proud of that and we are going to continue to do whatever it takes to keep our people and our tourists safe.”
This, of course, did not address the question of whether or not measures have been as well organized or effective as they might have been. Theoharis went on to say that the government will not shy away from taking difficult decisions such as banning large gatherings and closing bars at midnight in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But many have questions as to how situations like the TUI flight can happen.
The Deal Between the Lines
During the interview, Mr. Theoharis told the CNN audience that the government is monitoring the economic situation and will support all enterprises and employees in the winter if necessary. And GTP cited the Greek official saying:
“Whatever economic hardship and problems are still there in the winter, we will have enough ‘ammunition’ in order to support employees and enterprises… We will support each and every one of them.”
Theorharis brought up UNWTO data that reflects Greece’s drop in arrivals (-67 percent) due to the coronavirus, and at this point Richard Quest asked the Greek tourism minister what the permanent damage to the country’s tourism industry would be. Theoharis came back with what seemed like scripted responses reflecting cautious positivity. But the bigger picture looms like a black storm cloud over the Greece tourism redux.
Greek officials have repeatedly said the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the country has less to do with tourists, and that locals are to blame. Here on Crete, where there we very few cases of COVID-19 before the country reopened, the people are now terrified the island may become a “worse case” scenario.
As a local, I can tell you that it is not the citizens of Crete walking around the beach boardwalks without protection. I was at a taverna by the sea the other day and 8 young foreign tourists sat down at the table across from us without masks even in their possession. In fact, very few of the recognizable tourists at Hersonissos, Gouves, and other locations we’ve visited seemed the least bit concerned about the spread of the virus. Perhaps this is about the psychology of people willing to risk travel in a pandemic?
An Arm Twisting Tragedy
Now that the really bad numbers have started rolling in, it seems fair to reexamine what Mr. Theoharis meant by “ammunition.” Were some guarantees made, perhaps with Germany, in exchange for big tour operators being able to pull in some cash flow? Sorry to say this, but it is what every person on the streets of Greece is thinking this morning. For my part, I see Harry Theoharis as a very capable and a very kind man who’s been put in the worst possible situation. Of course, this is about my perception, but I think it’s important to be fair. He just looks like a man who’s been wrung out by this whole situation.
At Pagne Hospital in Heraklion, sources even tell us the real numbers of cases is a lot higher than what’s been reported. This amplifies what every citizen of the island understands. The logic of Greeks giving Greeks COVID-19 after having handled the pandemic so well does not add up. In fact, Greek officials have been accused of covering up the number of coronavirus cases on holiday islands in the Aegean.
Those complaining say the administration has buckled under because of pressure from the tourism industry. Panagiotis Papanikolaou, the secretary of the Federation of Hospital Doctors’ Associations of Greece has said the Mitsotakis administration has been “strong-armed” by international tour operators. One look at the main shopping streets of Heraklion, and a peek at all-inclusive resorts TUI and other tour operators feed, and the true picture of the 2020 tourism season emerges.
Nobody is in town shopping, but some hotels and resorts on the beaches are almost at capacity. This means, for me at least, that package deals and corporate profits were what the campaigning was all about.
Back in July, Politico Magazine reported that in the first two weeks of July, 530 new infections have been traced. That report went on to say that more than half of those cases came from incoming visitors. The number of cases then was higher than the total number of cases reported in June and almost double May’s confirmed infections.
This Washington Post story supports the idea that the Greece reopening is not the “bragging point” minister Theoharis claims it is. And another report at Kethimerini drives the spike or reality in even deeper. According to Lina Geiannarou, the 5,000+ new cases in the month of August “accounted for roughly half of all of Greece’s infections since the start of the pandemic.” That’s right since the country opened wide her doors to outsiders, the COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in one month alone. And officials expect the public to believe in such coincidences?
Call a Doctor! But, Which One?
The doctors standing behind the Greece 2020 vacation redux are also beginning to sound like U.S. President Donald Trump’s team, citing plateaus and everything being under control even though there are almost 1,500 new cases each week now, with August holding several daily records. In fact, August holds the record for the most number of new cases reported at 5,840. And again, this has nothing to do with vacationers.
The good news is that some of Greece’s key doctors seem poised to sound the big buzzer if COVID-19 gets totally out of hand. Matina Pagoni, the president of the Athens and Piraeus Hospital Doctors’ Association (EINAP) advised Kathimerini’s readers on the ICU and intubation situation of late:
“The situation, as it stands, is manageable, but if the numbers keep rising it will get very tough.”
I am not sure how proud I am to have supported the reoping of Greece and the redux of Greece Vacation 2020 given the fact that one quarter of all COVID-19 deaths happened in August.
I can’t brag about being positive and hopeful in my commentary, when in days in June there were no new cases and no deaths in Greece. It’s just impossible to be proud and boisterous when the trend since Greece’s reopening looks like a looming disaster few officials seem concerned about. And for me a much larger question digs into my mind. Just who’s really behind the hell bent effort to jump start tourism no matter what?
Feature image: Courtesy Marco Verch from his recent trip to Santorini