Mykonos, Greece (CNN) – On Greece’s best-known party island, white houses, blue shutters and scarlet bougainvilleas sparkle in the sun.
Two weeks after the country’s official tourist season was declared open, all is quiet except the work of reviving the place.
In the labyrinthine alleys of the main city, where during the busy summer months physical distancing is easier said than done, crews paint upscale shops. If all goes well, they will soon be the backdrop for thousands of Instagram photos again.
In the island’s beach bars, the speakers that normally emit bass lines and rhythms are silent, the only sound coming from the sea. Music is not yet allowed in the venues even though restrictions have been relaxed to allow the use of outdoor areas.
The discos remain closed, hoping to reopen soon as Operation Blue Freedom picks up speed. This is the name of the Greek government’s plan to declare 80 islands, including most of the country’s top tourist destinations, safe for covid by the end of June.
The key is an aggressive vaccination campaign to inoculate all the island’s residents. Visitors can only come if they have been vaccinated, recovered from an infection, or have a negative PCR test.
At the Mykonos Health Center, vaccination appointments are fully booked, and more than half of the island’s population has received at least one vaccine.
Real estate agent Jerry Markantonatos just got his fix. “I’ve been waiting for this moment since the first day the virus started to spread,” he tells CNN.
«Honestly, I feel very lucky because I am in the tourism business, I have a family, parents. So for me it is a great relief that everyone who will visit Mykonos and Greece has to prove they are negative and that we are also vaccinated and can guarantee protection. Mykonos will definitely be a covid-free island this summer.
Greece’s post-covid economic recovery plans are driven by tourism. Industry accounts for 18% of the Greek economy and one in five jobs. It is the same industry that helped Athens emerge from a 10-year financial crisis that ended just before the COVID hit.
Last year, the country received less than a third of tourists compared to 2019, when more than 31 million visited, according to UNWTO, the UN tourism body.
“The people of Mykonos were surprised to see their island with just a trickle of the tourists they are used to,” says Mayor Konstantinos Koukas. “But this year all the signs show that arrivals could double those of 2020.”
With the country’s government ready to roll out the welcome mat, Athens has been taking steps that surpass those of other major Mediterranean nations that depend on tourism.
In early April, while confined and experiencing a spike in cases, Greece broke ground for leisure travelers from select countries that had made rapid progress in vaccinating their populations.
On April 19 it became the second EU country, after Croatia, to allow Americans to arrive without quarantine. The move marked the first time the country has opened to American visitors since March 2020, when Greece entered its first lockdown, at the start of the pandemic.
With American visitors spending the most in Greece, Athens is confident of a surge in American travelers in the summer driven by an increase in direct flights by American airlines between the two countries. The US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, recently praised the “record number of nine daily direct flights by US airlines to Greece” this summer.
With dozens of islands already fully vaccinated and vast stretches of unspoiled coastline, Greece promises space and options.
Things are more complicated in Mykonos, where unlike many other idyllic destinations, the island’s brand and income is built around nightlife, described by a local nightclub owner as a ‘tough nut to crack’ in the logistics of the covid era.
Although the US State Department recently added Greece to its long list of countries with the designation ‘Level 4: No Travel’, the promise of a Covid-free Mykonos has generated increased interest from global travelers, particularly from the United States, says Iraklis Zisimopoulos, CEO of Semeli Hospitality Group, which includes hotels, bars and restaurants on the island.
“We get a lot of questions, although not all of them translate into reservations yet,” he says. “The two main questions are whether we are all vaccinated and whether tourists can really have fun on the island like they used to.”
“We tell them that we hope that by July 1 things will be very close to what they used to be before the covid.”
Zisimopoulos describes the vaccine as “the magic recipe to resume nightlife.”
Global reopening plans remain fluid, regardless of how welcoming a country’s policies are. New variants are a constant concern. Several countries continue to prohibit their citizens from traveling abroad. Travelers may be forced to self-quarantine after returning home.
In Mykonos, the first megayachts of this summer have started to arrive.
At the trendy Alemagou Beach Bar and Restaurant, champagne is already flowing and a German bachelorette party is underway. After many months locked up, a tourist from Hamburg in a flowery dress says that she and her childhood friends are “living the dream”, finally reunited.
«Last year the regulations were there […] but we didn’t have the vaccines, “says Alemagou co-owner Vangelis Siafidas. «This year we were among the first to open. We wanted to show people that they can have a good time and hang out safely. This is what makes people book tickets.