Balkan hoteliers hope for ‘survival’ as borders reopen

Agence France-Presse
In Greece's Halkidiki peninsula, most of the resorts lie empty. Operators are hoping travelers from neighboring Balkan countries can help lift business.

BLEAK OUTLOOK. An employee walks at a beach bar near Paliouri on Halkidiki peninsula, Greece, on June 20, 2020. Photo by Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP

PEFKOCHORI, Greece – As the first Balkan travelers queued at the border with Bulgaria to cross into Greece this week, hotelier Yiannis Laspas was glued to his TV screen, eagerly awaiting potential guests.

“My cancellation figures look like something out of a stock exchange crash,” the 37-year-old muses.

More than 13,000 people have already crossed the border with Bulgaria, the first overland checkpoint opened by Greek authorities on Monday, June 15, after the coronavirus lockdown in March.

“Let’s see what can be salvaged from this disastrous year,” Laspas tells Agence France-Presse (AFP) from his office, where he has a large television screen tuned into foreign channels.

“Our basic goal is survival,” he says with an uneasy smile.

One of Greece’s most popular tourism destinations, the Halkidiki peninsula fields around 100,000 rooms in hotels and apartments. Nearly 60% of business activity relies on the travel sector.

Last year, some 1.5 million travelers visited the area, mainly from neighboring Balkan countries.

But for now, most of the resorts lie empty.

And many operators dread an outbreak that would kill off their season for good.

In neighboring Albania, whose economy draws up to 15% from tourism, operators are also staring at a potentially ruinous year with the suspension of mainly Polish and Scandinavian bookings.

4 hours to cross border

Osvaldo Dallia, manager of the Grand Blue Fafa resort on the Adriatic, where white sand beaches reopened just a week ago, says operators expect a complete reversal in their client profile.

“Last year, Balkan visitors were 15% of the total. This year, they will be 80-85%,” he said.

“Why shouldn’t Balkan nations help each other on holidays?” notes Diola Kryeziu, a hotel guest from Kosovo.

Greece has so far tackled the pandemic relatively better than most European Union (EU) states, with fewer than 190 deaths for 11 million inhabitants.

Albania has recorded just 38 deaths.

Laspas owns 3 small hotels in the Halkidiki coastal village of Pefkohori, totaling around 150 beds.

So far, he has one booking from a Romanian family.

“Under no circumstances can we hope to reach last year’s figures,” says Laspas.

“But if we manage 30%, we can hope to sort of stay on our feet and carry on,” he told AFP.

Most of the larger hotels in Halkidiki don’t plan to reopen before July 1, when the arrivals outlook will be clearer.

On Monday, the queue of cars at Promachonas stretched some 15 kilometers (9 miles), state TV ERT said.

“We had to wait 4 hours to cross the border. I hope the rest of our vacation won’t be like this,” said Andrei Istrate, a 36-year-old Romanian traveling with his wife, two children, and a boat in tow.

‘Can’t let fear defeat us’

“With this kind of sun, I hope the virus will not survive. We cannot let fear defeat us,” said 52-year-old Bulgarian Dancho Ivanov, a frequent visitor to Halkidiki.

In addition to the long wait, there was confusion and anger for hundreds of non-EU travelers who were turned back.

This included hundreds of Serbs, who were told by Greek border guards that they would only be allowed to enter from July 1 onwards.

“We had left early in the morning to reach Greece as quickly as possible,” a mother of 3 named Violeta told Serbian tabloid Informer.

“We were expecting some sort of an explanation. After hours of waiting, we realized that the only option was to turn back…tired and seething,” she said.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said there had been a “clear misunderstanding” and mixed signals sent by Athens.

“The Greek interior ministry ordered the border closure [to Serbs] while the foreign ministry had made an entirely different recommendation,” Dacic told Blic daily.

“We have submitted a request to Greek authorities…. The Greek PM and foreign minister had promised us a different kind of behavior towards our citizens,” he said.

On Tuesday, June 16, border guards said they had verbal orders to allow Serbs in.

Border crossings with Albania and North Macedonia are to reopen on July 1. – Rappler.com