Harry Theoharis: Vaccination certificate instead of a PCR test should be an option

“A common vaccination certificate should be an option instead of a PCR test before travelling,” Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis tells Athens Digest. “This dispels both myths: You are not prevented from travelling if you are not vaccinated and you are not forced to provide vaccination details; you can always get tested and keep the fact that you are vaccinated undisclosed,” he stresses.

Interview with John Papageorgiou

As of February 10, Athens is under a stricter lockdown. In what ways does this affect your plans concerning the summer tourist season?

The current lockdown phase comes at an off-season period. Any wavering or double thinking about it, at this point, will result in the prolongment of the second – or third depending on how you count – wave.

Our strategic priorities, however, remain unchanged: (a) updating of the health protocols that we successfully implemented last year, given the current circumstances; (b) providing financial support, to employees and entrepreneurs alike; (c) capitalising on our brand name as a safe and relaxing destination in an effort to deal with what we foresee as a very competitive second half of the year; (d) continuing on the reform drive in order to strategically realign the Greek touristic offering to the accelerating trends that this pandemic has unleashed and (e) utilising the Recovery and Resilience Facility in order to support these reforms as well as accelerate recovery.

According to the latest EC forecast, the tourism sector faced the most severe consequences in Greece among the EU member states. The forecast stresses that a gradual recovery is expected. Which is your projection for 2021?

The current climate is even worse than what it was one year ago. However, my firm belief – and rational guess – is that we are already starting to climb the slope of recovery. For one thing, vaccination programs are finally being streamlined while at the same time production is ramping up. Second, demand in countries that vaccination has progressed more than average, is picking up quickly. Third, we have rapid tests in our arsenal, a tool we didn’t have last summer. Finally, we are wiser both in the management of opening our borders – e.g. our innovative AI test targeting at the borders system is able to benefit from meta-analysis of our results – and in the health front, the actual behaviour of the virus. I do not want to underestimate the risks, including the one of new strains and variants but overall, the balance is firmly pointed to the positive side.

The Greek Prime Mnister has repeatedly supported the introduction of a European vaccination certificate. Until now the EU has endorsed the idea only for medical reasons. Are you intending to proceed with bilateral agreements with the EU member states which are equally supportive of the idea, like you did with Israel, a non- EU country?

Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ proposal is simply “applied common sense”. It solves several problems in a self-evident way. I note, with some degree of pride I must admit, that many countries have endorsed this idea.

The EU leaders as well as the Commission have endorsed the need for a common certificate for medical reasons; this is an important and necessary first step. At the same time, we are still asking for negative tests before traveling to Greece as many countries do. But requiring a PCR test for people that have been vaccinated seems an unnecessary burden to other countries’ health systems. All we are saying is that before traveling you should have the option of presenting either a negative test or a vaccination certificate. This dispels both myths: You are not prevented from travelling if you are not vaccinated and you are not forced to provide vaccination details; you can always get tested and keep the fact that you are vaccinated undisclosed.

Which are your expectations from the agreement you signed last week with Israel?

The cooperation between Greece and Israel is highly important by all means and can serve as a model of our policy for the development of the Greek Tourism. Greece needs extroversion, strategic alliances, and synergies; and even more so with Mediterranean countries. I believe that, even among competitors in a specific sector, like tourism, there is potential for beneficial cooperation for all parties involved.

Greece’s friendship with Israel was sealed with the Cooperation Agreement we signed. It foresees synergies and exchange of information for tourism promotion and advertising, for the legislation and institutional frameworks, etc.

We pay high attention to the joint creation of development opportunities, with incentives for start-ups and SMEs in Greece and Israel. Of course, our agreement establishes a close cooperation on issues related to the management of tourist movement and the improvement of services for the benefit of guests, starting with the travellers’ facilitation from Israel to Greece and vice versa during the current period of covid-19.

Additionally, from now on, Greece and Israel will have better and more direct coordination when it comes to their representation in international organizations of our sector such as the World Tourism Organization.

How does the ministry of tourism intend to take advantage of the Recovery Fund? Which projects are considered as your first priorities?

The effective utilization of the RRF resources is a complex challenge. Regarding our sector, the obvious and biggest challenge is that the EU has not included tourism as a specific priority for its funding initiatives up to now. The Recovery Fund offers a great opportunity to change this.

As I mentioned before, the RRF funding should support the strategic realignment of our offering through a targeted reform support package. This includes (a) infrastructure development such as marinas or tourism flow management initiatives in big cities, (b) digitalisation initiatives to enhance the digital aspect of the touristic journey (from planning to returning), (c) sustainability initiatives to enhance both the appeal and the longevity of the offering, (d) new products such as gastronomy or health and wellness tourism that increase the resilience of our economy (e) extending the season in order to capture both short term demand opportunities and long term trends and (f) supporting the development of products in areas of low touristic development such as  in the rural and mountainous areas of Greece.