Most young Europeans still face a long wait for Covid-19 vaccination, but Argyris Souanis, 32 years old, is about to get his shot because he is lucky enough to live on the Greek island of Santorini.
Mr. Souanis will get one of the single-dose vaccines made by Johnson & Johnson that Greece’s government has decided to direct mostly to Greek islands, in a quest to fully inoculate islanders and save the cornerstone of the Greek economy: the summer tourist season.
Mr. Souanis supplies tourist souvenirs to shops all over Santorini, whose whitewashed villages perched along the rocky black rim of an ancient volcano are among the most famous sights of the Mediterranean. Last year, when Covid-19 struck and cruise ships vanished, Mr. Souanis’s business almost ground to a halt. He didn’t sell a single one of the 20,000 Santorini calendars for the year 2020 that he had printed. “I had to throw them all away,” he said.
It is an experience he is desperate to avoid repeating. Everyone in his family is planning to take up the government’s offer of early vaccination. “The economy here is based 100% on tourism. We all agree there is no other choice,” he said.
Most countries are asking their oldest residents, and others at high risk of serious illness, to get a Covid-19 vaccine first. Epidemiologists say that is the fastest way to cut hospitalizations and deaths.
In Greece, where old people have had the chance to get at least one shot, the islands are now the top priority.
Greeks know the country can ill afford to lose a second summer tourism season in a row. In normal, non-pandemic times, more than 20% of Greece’s gross domestic product depends on tourism.
In 2020, Greece received just seven million tourists, down from 33 million in 2019. The shock of the pandemic has set back Greece’s long, slow climb out of economic depression since the country’s debt crisis a decade ago.
Greece opened its borders for tourists on May 15. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis have worked to get the country ready and entice back the world’s vacationers.
But Greece’s still-high level of Covid-19 contagion has led many countries including the U.S. and the U.K. to advise their citizens against taking a Greek vacation for now.
As of May 29, Greece had administered a first vaccine dose to 3.6 million of its 10.4 million population, and fully vaccinated 2 million. The country’s reopening from a long lockdown since winter has been slowed by new infections that often exceed 2,000 a day.
In an effort to reassure the outside world that traveling to Greece is safe, Mr. Mitsotakis earlier this month decided to break with vaccinating people by age group, the common practice in Europe. Under a campaign called “Blue Freedom,” the government would fully vaccinate all 700,000 or so adult residents of Greece’s islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas by the end of June, he said. All islanders are being offered the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Nikoloas Kanakaris, a 35-year-old from Santorini, said the policy is the only hope for salvaging the summer at least partially. He captains a boat that ferries visitors from cruise ships to Santorini’s shores. All of the 120 locals who work on such boats plan to get their shot soon, he said.
“We haven’t got much else to do,” said Mr. Kanakaris. Only five cruise ships are scheduled to arrive in June, with reduced passenger numbers under Covid-19 rules. Last year, Mr. Kanakaris and his colleagues had no work at all. “We went from literally the peak in 2019 to zero activity, without income, since the end of 2019,” he said.
“Meanwhile we have to keep spending to maintain the boats and keep them safe,” said Mr. Kanakaris. “Soon we will have to pay back some of the financial support we received last year. Still, despite all difficulties, I want to be optimistic; 2021 will be another tough year, but we will get back to normal in 2022.”
Santorini normally draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually from all over the world. Bookings this year from Asia and Australia are zero, said Antonis Pagonis, the 28-year-old president of the village of Oia, one of the island’s most famous attractions.
Mr. Pagonis said he hopes the rapid vaccination plan will help to reassure Americans in particular. “The U.S. is a top market for us, but the country has placed Greece on red alert so far. There is interest and bookings from there, but when you have an option to cancel in 48 or 72 hours it is more a promise than a plan. It is going to be a race against time this year,” he said.
While Santorini can hope that its global brand will still attract people as the season gets going, the outlook is more uncertain in Symi, a picturesque island of 3,000 residents near the coast of Turkey.
Euthalia Karpathaki and her husband own a local bus, car-rental business and travel agency. Business isn’t going well. Only a handful of short-stay guests are coming from the nearby larger island of Rhodes. A few more tourists are trickling in by ferry from Piraeus, the port of Athens.
“We used to get a lot of tourism from Turkey as well,” said Ms. Karpathaki while observing a lonely yacht sail into Symi’s port. “They would sail from the Turkish coast and spend a couple of days here.” But the pandemic and the fall in Turkey’s troubled currency have ended that.
Symi has had few coronavirus infections, but many locals now plan to make use of the government’s offer of rapid vaccination—as much to protect themselves when tourists begin returning as to lure them back. “We are all a bit concerned about what will happen when visitors from Rhodes and Piraeus start arriving,” said Dimitris Xrysochoos, a retiree on Symi.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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