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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Greek hotels fear a burning future: ‘Even the animals are moving away’

Wildfire on Tuesday near the village of Gennadi on Rhodes. The Greek tourism minister has said visitors can still vacation elsewhere on the island.


As thousands of tourists have fled the flames devouring the Greek island of Rhodes, locals were left with scorched land, and the ashes of the cypresses, olive trees and pines surrounding their empty bars, shops and hotels.

Many fear their livelihoods have been shattered for now and perhaps for the future, if the visitors, a core source of income for the island, do not return.

“It was green, and now it’s black,” said George Tirelis, who manages some holiday villas in the south of Rhodes, which are now empty and surrounded by charred land. “Tourists are scared now to come.”

More than most European countries, Greece depends on the summer months of tourism to pay for the rest of the year, and its economy heavily relies on the attractiveness of its crystalline seas and picturesque landscapes. The fires that have spread since last week have blighted the country’s image as a vacation retreat, prompting what officials called its largest evacuation in recent history, causing huge damage to buildings and the environment and killing at least two people.

But as climate change intensifies stifling heat waves, and the dryness that fuels the wildfires, it is also raising longer-term questions for Greece’s economy and the people who live there.

On Wednesday, firefighters were still battling spreading flames, including new blazes on the mainland, their efforts complicated by increasingly dry and hot conditions with yet another wave of heat descending over Greece. Temperatures peaked on Wednesday, reaching 46 Celsius, or about 115 Fahrenheit, in central Greece, with an extreme risk of wildfires in six regions.

At the same time, the tourism sector was mobilizing. Greece’s tourism minister, Olga Kefalogianni, organized an emergency meeting, and speaking to BBC radio on Monday encouraged visitors with bookings for Rhodes still to travel, because the fires affected only a small part of the island. Action was being taken, she said, to promote the island as “a uniquely beautiful and safe destination.”

But the worries far transcend Rhodes, and representatives of the sector were sounding an alarm.

“It’s raining cancellations,” Panagiotis Tokouzis, a vice-president of the Greek Tourism Confederation, said on Greek radio on Monday, adding that the issue did not concern only the islands. “The tourism of the entire country has been affected.”

The industry had already been suffering, Tokouzis said in an interview, with fewer tourists in Greece this year in May and June after months of high inflation and financial concerns around the world.

“Everyone was waiting for July and August to pick up,” he said. “Unfortunately this happened now.”

Though hotels on Rhodes largely suffered only exterior damage, according to local tourism representatives, Tokouzis said that 30% of bookings on the island had been canceled for the next two weeks, which meant millions in losses.

In the past few years, wildfires have ravaged many parts of Greece, from the seaside town of Mati, where fires in 2018 killed more than 100 people, to the northern part of the island of Evia in 2021. This year, fires have spread on the island’s south, as well as in parts of Corfu, another popular tourist destination.

Figures from TCI Research, a travel data organization, suggest that past wildfires have caused only temporary drops in Greece’s online reputation. But as heat waves grow in extent and severity, and create more fire-friendly conditions, some tourism operators fear lasting damage.

Miltiades Chelmis, the head of the Hoteliers Association of Evia, said that in a country that relied heavily on tourism, the conditions, exacerbated by climate change, were a huge worry.

“If this situation continues like this, tourists will try to find cooler places to go,” Chelmis said. “Even the animals are moving away.”

Heat waves may “reduce southern Europe’s attractiveness as a tourist destination in the longer term or at the very least reduce demand in summer,” Moody’s, the ratings agency, said on Monday, predicting “negative economic consequences given the importance of the sector.”

According to a European Commission report published this year, in a world that reached 4 degrees Celsius of warming, tourism would fall by 9% in the Greek Ionian Islands. In the same scenario, it would increase by about 16% in Western Wales.

On Saturday, guests at the villas that Tirelis manages in southern Rhodes, near the village of Kiotari, started sending him pictures of thick smoke coming from behind the hill in front of the property, which was covered in trees and bushes. Now that land is completely scorched, and all of August’s visitors have canceled their bookings. But Tirelis’ worries were not only about this summer.

“I am afraid also about the next year,” he said. “We don’t know how customers will feel about traveling to Rhodes when they hear about the big fire.”

Ion Gonos also rents homes to tourists near Kiotari — dazzling white villas with wide windows overlooking the sea and, until recently, a lush Mediterranean landscape. For the most part, the houses survived the fires, but the surrounding hill is now covered in ash. Gonos said he was very worried both for the environment and for his business.

“When someone goes on holiday they want to go a nice place,” Gonos said. “Now you only see dust.”

Yannis Tselios, 29, whose family also rents some villas nearby to tourists, and whose yard burned down in the fires, said he had so many cancellations that he has already decided to close for the year.

They were going to fix their properties before the next season, he added.

“But possibly it will not be the same,” he said. “We will not have the same forest again.”

In the aftermath of the 2018 fire in Mati, vacationers discussed on a TripAdvisor forum whether or not they should still book a hotel there. “It’s safe, but very sad,” one user wrote.

George Pappas, the manager of that hotel, the Cabo Verde, said that many tourists eventually came back, in part thanks to the village’s strategic position next to Athens and Rafina, the ferry port for several Greek islands.

Several tourists were oblivious of what had happened there, he said, but Dimitris Lymperopoulos, a bartender at the hotel, said that the atmosphere hadn’t completely recovered.

“There is a mood of sadness around here from what happened,” he said.

Five years on, he added, the nature was still not fully back.

“Trees take a lot of time to grow again,” he said.

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