7 June 2021
While most countries in the world prioritize vaccination to the elderly and chronic patients, this is not the case in Greece. The country, where the new type of corona virus pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to tourism, has decided to give priority to those living on touristic islands in order to attract foreign visitors. As part of a campaign called “Operation Blue Freedom”, it announced that it will fully vaccinate all of the approximately 700,000 adults living on the country’s islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas by the end of June. In addition, it was stated that all residents living on touristic islands are offered a one-time Johnson Johnson vaccine.
Many young Europeans still face a long wait for the Covid-19 vaccine. However, 32-year-old Argyris Souanis is about to get vaccinated as she is lucky enough to live on the Greek island of Santorini. Souanis will receive one of the single-dose vaccines made by Johnson Johnson, which the government has decided to divert mostly to the Greek islands, in order to fully vaccinate the islanders and save the summer tourist season, which is the cornerstone of the Greek economy.
With its whitewashed houses perched along the rocky slopes of an ancient volcano, Souanis supplies tourist souvenirs to shops all over Santorini, which is among the most famous sights of the Mediterranean. Last year, Souanis’ business came to a near standstill when the country was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and cruise ships disappeared. He did not sell a single of his 20 thousand Santorini calendars for 2020.
“I had to throw it all away,” Souanis said. Everyone in my family plans to accept the government’s early vaccination offer. The economy here is 100 percent based on tourism. “We all agree that there is no other option,” he said.
However, most countries give priority to vaccination of those who are the oldest and most at risk of serious illness in their population. Experts say this is the fastest way to reduce hospitalizations and deaths. However, in Greece, the islands are now top priority.
The Greek government knows that the country cannot afford to lose its second summer tourist season in a row. Because, in the pre-pandemic period, more than 20 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product depended on tourism.
Only seven million tourists came to Greece in 2020, compared to 33 million in 2019. The shock of the pandemic has delayed Greece’s long and slow recovery from economic depression since the debt crisis a decade ago.
On the other hand, Greece opened its borders to tourists on May 15. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis worked to prepare the country and attract foreign holidaymakers. However, the still high infection rate in Greece has caused many countries, including the US and the UK, to advise their citizens not to take a Greek holiday for now.
However, as of June 4, Greece had administered the first dose of vaccination to 3.9 million of its population of 10.4 million, and had fully vaccinated 2.3. To reassure the outside world that it is safe to travel to Greece, Prime Minister Mitsotakis decided earlier this month to stop vaccinating people by age group, which is common practice in Europe.
As part of a campaign called “Operation Blue Freedom”, the government announced that it will fully vaccinate all of the approximately 700,000 adults living on Greek islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas by the end of June. In addition, all residents of the islands were offered the one-time Johnson Johnson vaccine.
Ship captain Nikoloas Kanakaris, who lives in Santorini, said politics is the only hope to save the summer, at least in part. Kanakaris, 35, who captains a boat that carries visitors from cruise ships to the shores of Santorini, said all 120 locals working on such boats will soon be vaccinated. “In the meantime, we must continue to spend to protect boats and keep them safe. Soon we will have to pay back some of the financial support we received last year. I still want to be optimistic despite all the challenges; 2021 will be another tough year but in 2022 we will have to return to normalcy. We will be back,” he said.
On the other hand, Santorini would normally attract hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world each year. However, 28-year-old head of the village of Oia, one of the island’s most famous tourist attractions, Antonis Pagonis, said reservations from Asia and Australia were zero this year. Pagonis said he hopes the rapid immunization plan will help reassure Americans in particular, adding: “The US is the best market for us, but the country has put Greece on red alert so far. There is interest and reservations from there, but when you have the option to cancel within 48 or 72 hours, it’s more of a promise than a plan. “This year will be a race against time,” he said.