Greece says it's all set to welcome tourists in May, as the EU has just unveiled a new Covid-19 pass for travelers. But will the fragmented bloc be able to agree on rights attached to the certificate in time to save the summer?
Greek islands like Mykonos and Santorini are exquisite destinations, but not many people explore less obvious grounds, like Epirus, home to the sanctuary of mythical Mother Goddess Dodona — legend has it that she was an oracle to Zeus himself.
The site of Dodona was discovered only in recent years and is located in the heart of rugged Epirus, where stunning gorges scar the walls of its mountainous landscape in the northwest of Greece.
Tourism in Greece has suffered one of its worst years in modern history, but the coronavirus crisis has given local bloggers a chance to reinvent their approach by exploring less chartered territories.
Travel Bloggers Greece (TBG) is one non-profit organization that has aligned with local bloggers who can venture deeper into the Hellenic state to offer people slower and culturally-rich experiences as tourism starts to recover.
“Travel is not about ticking the boxes or taking that perfect Instagram shot. It is all about connecting on a deeper level,” said Elena Sergeeva, co-founder of TBG.
Sergeeva, who’s been involved in the tourism industry for 20 years, started blogging in 2012 while doing a thesis for a Master’s degree on using social media to promote luxury hotels.
TBG’s Greek travel with a twist appeals most to those eager for adventure, context, and a taste of local culture.
“I have always focused on highlighting relatively unknown parts of Greece,” said Rania Kalogirou, a member of TBG, who also owns Definitely Greece, a family-owned business that creates tailor-made luxury itineraries for global clients who enjoy slow travel.
“Small groups, secluded villages, and nature escapes where guests can see the authentic and intimate side of Greece are key aspects,” said Kalogirou, who is also a travel writer.
Kalogirou’s family business takes the slow travel experience very seriously. For one, it encourages like-minded women travelers to make friends through its women-only tours. The agency also caters to the “extroverted introvert” — a traveler who can sometimes be a bit of an anomaly for the mainstream industry.
On a “premium” tour to Southern Greece, Definitely Greece takes history lovers to ancient palaces of prominent Kings, where the likes of Homer are forever immortalized. They also make their way to Peloponnese, where rugged castles still stand despite numerous pirate attacks from the Aegean Sea.
But these adventures are just the tip of the iceberg for Rania, who embarked on a cargo ship journey from Singapore to Istanbul through the Suez Canal. And no, she wasn’t a stowaway; the ship captains welcomed the elite blogger of TBG.
Currently, TBG has about 10 local blog members and two international members from the U.S. and the U.K. The six-year-old group has worked with more than 25 destinations and hundreds of local businesses that include tour providers, transport companies, and hospitality.
What sets this group apart from today’s typical influencers is their passion for writing and extensive experience in tourism and hospitality.
“Together we deliver a holistic approach to promoting a destination or a tourism business that we work with. We plan blogger trips by working directly with the destinations and we all promote the destinations through our blog,” said Sergeeva, who comes from a hospitality background.
Iliad to Recovery
In the summer of 2020, when Greece first opened up to tourists, TBG was approached by destinations like Tolo in the Peloponnese, Epirus, and Kasos to promote their tourism. The group is not funded by the government, but these offbeat towns saw it as an opportunity to work with local bloggers who have an international reach.
This year, TBG has plans to do the same in some of the country’s most beautiful, yet less frequented regions after facing a difficult year.
“Blogging as a business has suffered tremendously and unless people start traveling again, only then we can see improvement,” Sergeeva added.
Last year in particular was filled with human losses and economic turmoil. The pandemic shock has certainly devastated the global travel sector, particularly in a country like Greece.
Tourism makes up 18 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product and employs more than 900,000 people, or one-fifth of the workforce.
Tourism minister Harry Theoharis recently announced that Greece is opening its borders on May 14, noting that all visitors who have been inoculated or who test negative for Covid-19 can travel to Greece this summer.
This prompted a sigh relief across the country — particularly within the tourism sector, which saw revenues drop 78.2 percent and arrivals fall 77.2 percent in the first nine months of 2020.
After the minister’s announcement, hotel booking rates skyrocketed, with some hotels already hitting 70 percent capacity for the months of May and June.
“Since the announcement made by the Greek tourism minister that the country is opening its borders on May 14, I have seen an increase in my blog traffic from German-speaking travelers, more specifically from Germany, Austria and Switzerland,” TBG’s Sergeeva told Skift.
After taking the pandemic downtime to dive even deeper into Greece’s less popular destinations and venues, Elena says TBG is more than ready for the sector’s comeback.
“We have already started discussions with several destinations in Greece and our plan is to have a preliminary trip plan in order, and once the government officially announces the opening dates we can quickly adapt our plan,” Sergeeva said.
When Coronavirus brought global travel to a standstill this month last year, the European Union faced a situation like none before in its modern history.
What started out as a 30-day border closure on arrivals from the Schengen Area and non-EU countries, turned into a series of endless lockdown measures that have highlighted much discord between EU members.
Despite the bloc’s slow rollout of vaccinations, the EU has unveiled a Covid pass that will allow easy travel this summer to support the stressed tourism sector. This would allow vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals who test negative for Covid-19 to travel freely.
Destinations like Greece and Portugal have announced that they will open to tourists in May as a result.
Next week, EU leaders will meet for a heated debate on what rights to include in the Covid certificates, such as making sure to avoid discrimination against those who cannot or refuse to get vaccinated.
“Perhaps it will take some time to get back to the same volumes that we experienced in 2019 and maybe we will never get back to the same volumes — only time will tell,” said Sergeeva.
Photo credit: Some of the most rustic Mediterranean homes are located in Greece's Papingo Village in Epirus. Elena Sergeeva, blogger