Balkan hoteliers hope for 'survival' as borders reopen

by Vassilis KYRIAKOULIS with Briseida MEMA in Tirana
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People sunbathe in Durres as Albania reopens beaches after weeks of lockdown

As the first Balkan travellers 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 after the coronavirus lockdown in March.

"Let's see what can be salvaged from this disastrous year," Laspas tells 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 percent of business activity relies on the travel sector.

Last year, some 1.5 million travellers visited the area, mainly from neighbouring 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 neighbouring Albania, whose economy draws up to 15 percent from tourism, operators are also staring at a potentially ruinous year with the suspension of mainly Polish and Scandinavian bookings.

- Four 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 percent of the total. This year, they will be 80-85 percent," 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 EU states, with fewer than 190 deaths for 11 million inhabitants.

Albania has recorded just 38 deaths.

Laspas owns three small hotels in the Halkidiki coastal village of Pefkohori, totalling 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 percent, 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 kilometres (nine miles), state TV ERT said.

"We had to wait four 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 travelling 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 travellers 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 three named Violeta told Serbian tabloid Informer.

"We were expecting some sort of an explanation. After hours of waiting, we realised 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 behaviour towards our citizens," he said.

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

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

str-bme-mat-ds/jph/bsp/jj/wdb

People sunbathe in Durres as Albania reopens beaches after weeks of lockdown

Greece has so far tackled the pandemic relatively better than most EU states

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

Hotel manager Osvaldo Dallia is hoping Albania will get more visitors this year from the Balkans region to make up the shortfall of international tourists