As Greece suffers its worst heatwave in more than 30 years, wildfires are raging, the capital Athens is thick with haze, and residents on the outskirts of the city have fled, leaving their possessions to go up in flames.
As the temperatures soar, eyes are turning towards the tourist industry. Tourism is crucial for Greece’s economy – it brought in over $45 billion to the economy in 2019 – and the sector has, of course, already been decimated by the pandemic. Greece has gone all out to encourage tourists back for 2021, launching the biggest advertising campaign in a decade by the national tourist office.
Americans face another issue. On August 3, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added Greece, along with 15 other countries, to its “very high” Covid travel risk list. The country is now Level 4, which has a Do Not Travel order. Level 4 destinations have had more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 28 days, according to CDC parameters.
Yet so far, tourists seem to be keeping calm and carrying on, sitting out the heatwave by the pool instead of canceling their vacations.
Lucy Thackray, a visitor from London to Lefkada, one of the Ionian islands off the west coast of the Greek mainland, had put her sightseeing plans on hold “to stand in the pool with a frozen drink.”
It was 95 F when she arrived on Monday, she said – and after an hour’s “boiling” cab ride to her hotel, she didn’t much feel like moving from the pool.
“I’ve taken two boats to pretty beaches, but I’m not doing any sightseeing that isn’t water-adjacent,” she said.
“I wouldn’t go hiking or wander round the towns. It definitely feels too hot to do stuff – even in the evenings it’s sweaty-hot.”
A Greece old hand – she reckons she’s been around 25 times – she said she’s never experienced this level of heat.
By Thursday morning, it was pushing 99 degrees.
Another sign of climate change
Brandon Miller, supervising meteorologist for CNN Weather, said that a “heat dome” is currently parked over south-east Europe.
“Storm systems are traveling north of the ‘high pressure ridge’ and allowing the midsummer sun to bake the region, and allowing hot, dry air from the Sahara to travel north into the region,” he said, adding that the extreme weather is another sign of climate change.
“Greece is known for frequent heat waves and for fires. But climate change is also making these worse, as temperatures increase and droughts become more severe and frequent,” he said.
It’s not just Greece and Turkey (which has also been severely hit), says Miller, with “significant drought” and “particularly hot” temperatures across much of southern Europe, especially within the past two weeks.
Sirena Bergman, another Brit in the Ionian islands, arrived in Kefalonia last week from Spain. She expected roughly the same temperatures, she said – but was in for a nasty surprise.
“I haven’t noticed that anything’s closed because of the heat, but it’s definitely affected our behavior,” she said.
“Our accommodation is at the top of a very steep uphill walk and it’s basically unbearable to do until the sun goes down. Walking around is quite unpleasant if you’re going more than five minutes, unless you’re by a sea breeze.
“To be honest if you’re coming for a sunny holiday and you’re staying near a beach or somewhere with a pool it’s probably fine, but I do feel for locals who are having to travel and work in this heat.
“It feels extremely stifling which, while a novelty for us based in the UK, I would imagine is hell to try and do anything productive through.”
Shutdowns in Athens
Of course, sitting by the pool on an island is a different beast from going on a city break. JT Genter, a digital nomad from the US, had arrived in Greece with his wife before the CDC changed its guidance.
They visited the Acropolis on July 29 – only to find it was closed because of the heat.
“Athens felt hot and empty – it was over 100 degrees every day we were there and the crowds seemed muted,” he told CNN Travel.
“We went to the Acropolis at midday, bought our tickets online per the signage, and walked to the open gates, to be told that they were closed until 5 p.m.”
They returned at 6 p.m. – along with many others who’d had the same idea. His photos from the day show crowds walking up the (unshaded) steps together.
And yet, he says it was worth braving the heat to go, calling it “fascinating.”
Keep calm and carry on (in the shade)
So far, tour operators – for whom this is the latest disaster in an industry-ruining year – are proceeding as usual. Chris Wright, managing director of Sunvil, confirmed that all trips to Greece are going ahead as planned.
“Luckily none of the areas we operate in are currently affected, and temperatures are now subsiding to normal levels for the time of year,” he said.
“We have operated in Greece for over 45 years and are well versed in dealing with wildfires. Our representatives on the ground are providing recommendations locally on how to handle the heat.”
CNN’s Miller says that the next two weeks “look pretty hot and dry, though not as extreme as the past week or so.”
He doesn’t think postponing trips is necessary, though.
“Just pay close attention to local conditions, and take precautions for heat and sun exposure,” he says.
“Another thing to be on the lookout for is smoke, which can cause poor air quality.
“Fortunately most of the fires are fairly localized, so the smoke is not as widespread as we have seen in the western US, Canada, and Russia, where massive fires are contributing huge amounts of smoke carrying for thousands of kilometers.”
Visitors might also want to look to their fellow travelers for advice. Nicole Walsh, who has been vacationing in “unbelievably hot” temperatures of almost 106 degrees – at 4 p.m. – in Crete, says that the heat is manageable.
“If you’ve got air conditioning it’s not that bad, and it’s more bearable in the evenings and early mornings,” she said.
“You just have to adapt your day, stay out of the sun and spend a lot of time in the water.
“I’d only say postpone [your trip] if you don’t like the heat or are staying somewhere without air conditioning – but you’re unlikely to be coming at this time of year if you’re looking for a holiday away from the sun.”