Greek islands hungry for tourists strive for ‘Covid-free’ image

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White sand beaches make Elafonisos a popular holiday destination, but it’s the Greek island’s small population that puts it at the top of the list for Covid jabs as the country strives to restart tourism before summer.

In January, the Greek government said it would prioritize immunity on the small islands, promising they would be fully vaccinated by the end of April.

To that end, jabs are being distributed to residents of dozens of islands in the Aegean Sea in the east and the Ionian Sea in the west, where municipalities look forward to fully reopening to tourists next month.

“Seventy percent of the island’s population will be vaccinated before mid-May,” Elafonisos mayor Efi Liarou said, a move she said “would provide some sort of shield for the residents.”

“This is a very important step which guarantees the launch of the tourist season and sends a message of optimism”, she continues, proud of what she considers as “the identity without Covid” of her island.

Sitting outside the island’s vaccination center, Panagiotis Aronis, 70, waits his turn to receive his second shot of Covid.

“The sky is clear, the process is going well,” he said, casting his eyes to the blue above him.

“Hopefully we can all survive,” Aronis thought to himself.

– Jabs by ferry –

A medical truck is parked outside the center with special boxes filled with doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Doctor Anargyros Mariolis, in charge of vaccination on Elafonisos, escorted the truck from the mainland by ferry on Friday.

And after finishing a day of beating up the center, Mariolis begins visiting elderly residents at home.

“Our goal is to create a wall of immunity to get back to normal as quickly as possible,” he told AFP.

The jab campaign is completely voluntary and does not apply to anyone under the age of 18.

Nevertheless, Mariolis hails as “exemplary” the deployment of “Operation Freedom” – as the Greek health authorities have dubbed it – echoing the optimism of the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health, Marios Themistocleous.

“Soon we will be finished vaccinating on islands of less than 1,000 people,” Themistocleous said last week during the inspection efforts on the island of Irakleia.

“We will then accelerate our efforts on the larger islands,” he said.

Measuring just 18 square kilometers (7 square miles), Elafonisos sits right next to the Peloponnese Peninsula and hosts an average of 200,000 tourists each year – but that number was wiped out by the pandemic in 2020.

The third wave of the pandemic has hit Greece particularly hard, with the majority of the nearly 10,000 virus deaths in the country occurring in recent months.

Greece has been under viral restrictions – including a curfew of varying severity – since November.

But like other tourism-dependent Mediterranean economies, Greece began reopening non-essential businesses and schools in early April, while restaurants and cafes are expected to offer outdoor seating on the 3rd. may.

A week ago, Greece lifted a mandatory seven-day quarantine for travelers from European Union countries, the United Kingdom, the United States, Israel, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates, tourists who must provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test.

On Monday, U.S. operator Delta Airlines said it would resume flights to Greece via New York on May 29 and add a direct flight from Atlanta on July 3.

Local entrepreneurs in Elafonisos rely on their image as a refuge from the virus to help attract their customers.

“Identity without Covid is a privilege for our island,” says Chryssoula Kataga, 43, owner of a restaurant in the port of the island.

“It reassures tourists after all this period of confinement,” she said.

Babis Aronis is finishing renovations at his nearby hotel and says he has already started receiving calls for reservations.

“After May 14, everything will be better,” he said. “We’re going to get there this summer.”

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