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Greece opening to tourists in July but hoteliers fear empty beaches


By Deborah Kyvrikosaios

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece hopes to welcome back tourists from July, but hoteliers expect a bleak season, fearing the coronavirus pandemic will keep visitors away and beaches empty.

Tourism is a major income earner for Greece. It drew 34 million visitors last year, bringing in 18 billion euros ($19.52 billion) in revenue, about 10-12% of economic output, and provided employment for about one in five of the workforce.

"Tourism is facing its biggest crisis of our generation," said the president of Corfu's hotel association Charalambos Voulgaris, owner of two resorts on the Greek island on the Ionian Sea.

Long stretches of beach, some dotted with rows of umbrellas, lie empty on Corfu and hoteliers like Voulgaris wonder whether they will open their doors this summer.

A lockdown from March 23 to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, which was effective in avoiding high rates of fatalities seen in other European countries, is expected to take a toll. Greece is now trying to save what is left of the season.

Passenger traffic plunged by as much as 90% for ferries, according to the Passenger Shipping Business Association, and by 59% percent for domestic and international flights in March, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

"We are going to have very low occupancy rates. We don't know if our hotels will open, when they will open, so we are right now on the brink of very hard times," Voulgaris said.

Harry Theocharis, Greece's tourism minister, says the plan is to welcome back tourists in July.

The government will begin to gradually ease the lockdown on May 4 and hotels operating year round will be able to open on June 1.

"I guess this is the million-dollar question. We are aiming to open up sometime in July," Theocharis told Reuters TV.

"This season is not going to be like the other years, I would be a fool to believe that this could ever be the case. However, there is a lot that we can do to re-open the tourist economy, the flows," he said.

Greece has recorded 2,566 cases of COVID-19 infections and 138 fatalities.

(Reporting by Deborah Kyvrikosaios; Writing by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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