In sun-blessed Greece, a movement to save summer emerges. It involves vaccine passports

March 14, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

At the Panorama Hotel in Monemvasia, along the coast of southern Greece, five workmen are busy putting up a new electric-powered pergola covering an outdoor dining area.

On a balcony overlooking the sea and a medieval castle, dusty old outdoor roller-shades have been pulled down to make room for the pergola that will be more pleasing to the eye and better able to survive tough weather conditions.

Durability is a key trait needed to survive in the pandemic-hit tourism landscape, says hotel owner Panagiotis Panos.

“Preparations are continuing as normal,” he says.

“We don’t know what to expect this year, but we will be ready either way,” he adds.

Greece’s tourism sector is getting ready for another summer—COVID or no COVID.

A view of the fortress town of Monemvasia on Aug. 10, 2020, in Laconia, Greece.
Athanasios Gioumpasis—Getty Images

Hotels, taverns, and tourism enterprises of all sorts are counting down the days for the start of the season, hoping for better times after the sector was decimated last year owing to the pandemic.

But just as in early 2020, no one really knows whether cross-border travel will be possible, with hopes for a rebound in the industry now pinned on the introduction of a “green pass,” or a vaccine certificate.

Discussions among European leaders on the vaccine certificate have picked up in recent weeks, but the outcome and timing of the measure remain largely uncertain.

The idea is that travelers who can prove they have been vaccinated will be allowed to freely enter European countries, just as tourists are required to carry proof they have received the yellow fever jab before entering countries in Africa and South America, where the tropical disease is endemic. The idea is even gaining ground in the U.S. with American airlines and business groups lobbying the White House for a similar measure.

Here’s how it could work in Europe: Visitors who have not been vaccinated would be allowed into a country, but they would be subject to quarantine regulations, or they would be required to provide negative COVID test results, in line with local rules.

‘A fundamental priority’

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has led the charge for the vaccine certificate, with the support of other tourism-reliant countries, such as Spain and Italy, arguing that it will allow for the quickest and safest way to enable people to hit the beaches this summer. 

“Ensuring the quickest possible reestablishment of freedom of movement between member states, but also with third countries, is a fundamental priority for us all,” said the Greek Premier in a letter sent to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in January.

“It is urgent to adopt a common understanding on how a vaccination certificate should be structured so as to be accepted in all member states,” he adds.

Others in Europe, however, do not share his enthusiasm.

Some leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, cite concerns that it will discriminate against those who cannot or will not take the jab amid legal questions about restrictions on the limitation of movement.

There are also concerns about whether those who have received the vaccine can still carry the coronavirus—and, in turn, infect others—and how easily these certificates can be forged, either in a digital form or a hard copy.

But as the spring weather arrives in southern Europe, objections to the vaccine certificate seem to be softening.

A draft proposal outlining legal and technical issues on the measure will be presented March 17 ahead of a meeting of EU leaders on March 25, according to Margaritis Schinas, a vice president of the European Commission.

Von der Leyen said in a tweet that the draft law “will respect data protection, security, and privacy.”

But as the debate continues, time is ticking away. Even if European leaders agree on how to go about establishing a vaccine certificate, there are concerns as to whether it will be ready in time for the summer.

The process will need about three to four months to set up, though officials in Athens are confident there is enough momentum to carry the process through in time for the start of the summer period. In fact, Greece hopes to open up its tourism sector on May 14.

“We believe that by the beginning of the tourist season, we will be ready,” Greek tourism minister Harry Theoharis tells Fortune.

What’s at stake

Tourism is a make-or-break industry for Greece.

Accounting for 20.8% of annual economic growth, tourism provides one in five jobs in the country. Last year, revenues in the sector plummeted by 75%, versus 2019 levels, to €4.2 billion, wiping off some 8% from the country’s annual economic output, economists say. Greece’s economy contracted in 2020 by 8.2%, making it one of Europe’s worst performers.

This year, National Bank of Greece says, tourism revenues are expected to bounce and reach €7.7 billion as people grow accustomed to traveling in a pandemic era. Some analysts say that a more coordinated approach on the vaccine certificate at a European level could further lift Greek tourism revenues to more than €11 billion.

To Mitsotakis, however, the issue is about more than just economics.

In June, the Greek Premier heralded the opening of the country’s tourism industry after Greece exited its first lockdown period.

The hype over the relaunch of the sector sent expectations soaring. Unofficially, government officials spoke about containing the drop in revenues to 50%, but disappointment quickly set in as income from travelers crashed by 76%.

Critics also accused Mitsotakis of carelessly opening the tourism sector too early, putting the population’s health at risk from travelers who were not properly checked. After the completion of the tourism season, the country was forced back into lockdown in November, like much of Europe.

‘Major miscalculation’

Nick Malkoutzis, editor of MacroPolis, an Athens-based online journal of economic and political analysis, describes last year as being a “major miscalculation by the government,” which Mitsotakis is eager to make up for.

The ruling conservative New Democracy Party has a comfortable lead in the polls, leading the main opposition Syriza Party by some 14 percentage points, but another misstep in tourism could severely dent its popularity amid growing pandemic fatigue.

“Mitsotakis wants to show Greeks that he is pulling out all stops to increase the number of tourists by as many as possible. There is a lot riding on this for the Greek Prime Minister,” adds Malkoutzis.

The tourism industry is on his side, welcoming just about any measure that will help them get through the tough times.

Data from the Panhellenic Federation of Restaurants and Related Professions shows that 43% of restaurants in Greece, which have been shut down since November to restrict COVID-19, have run out of money, with another 8% having enough cash to get through the next month.

Yiannis Retsos, chairman of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), says that the vaccination certificates are “a very correct approach.”

“Because the countries where vaccination rates have progressed quickly are our basic markets, we believe that single rules will help people plan their holiday and travel in summer, under the condition, of course, that the pandemic is under control,” he tells Fortune.

Side deals

Meanwhile, Greece has taken the unusual step of breaking with the EU’s ranks and striking up one-on-one deals with countries outside of the bloc.

Last month, Greece struck a deal with Israel, easing travel restrictions for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Talks are also being held with other non-EU countries, such as the U.K., in a bid to reach similar deals.

Back in Monemvasia, Panos says that he is waiting for notification on when hotels—and the economy—will open up to foreign travelers and what health protocols will need to be followed. Βars, theaters, and museums have also been closed in Greece since November.

“Along with our staff of six to seven people, we are all on standby. Everything will be decided at the very last minute this year,” he adds.

Correction and update, March 14, 2021: This post has been updated to correct the name of the hotel in Monemvasia.

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