Post-Covid tourism hopes buoyed by deal between Greece, Cyprus and Israel

Accords letting people with vaccine certificates travel hailed as step towards normality

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on 8 February
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister (left), and his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem on 8 February. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AP

Accords between Greece, Cyprus and Israel allowing citizens with Covid-19 vaccination certificates to travel unimpeded between the three countries have been hailed as a possible first step towards normalising tourism during the next phase of the pandemic.

The prospect of people being able to move freely in the age of coronavirus received a concrete boost last week when the deal was the centrepiece of a visit to Jerusalem by the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. After signing the agreement with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader suggested similar accords could soon be in the offing.

“I expect what we will be doing with Israel to be a trial run of what we can do with other countries,” said Mitsotakis, who first pressed the case for vaccine passports with other EU members last month.

On Valentine’s Day, the Cypriot president, Nicos Anastasiades, followed suit flying into Israel to strike the same deal. The agreement is expected to come into effect by 1 April.

Like Greece, the Mediterranean island’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism. Both have attracted ever more Israeli holidaymakers in a reflection of their deepening political, economic and military alliance with the state but like destinations elsewhere have also seen the sector hammered by the pandemic.

“When the world is in upheaval because of corona, the warm relations between our two countries are more important than ever,” Anastasiades said after holding talks with the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin. “The resumption of unrestricted free movement is of great importance to Cyprus, which is a tourism-dependent country.”

Mitsotakis’s proposal was initially met with scepticism by the EU amid fears it could be perceived as discriminatory. But in an indication that the idea may be gaining traction the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, said on Monday he believed coronavirus certificates might be “very much in the mix down the road”.

“I think inevitably there will be great interest in ideas like: can you show you’ve had a vaccination against Covid in the way that sometimes you have to show you’ve had a vaccination against yellow fever or other diseases in order to travel somewhere,” Johnson told reporters during a visit to a vaccine centre. “I think that is going to be very much in the mix down the road. I think that is going to happen.”

Under the accords, Israeli citizens who can prove they’ve received an EU-approved Covid-19 jab will neither have to undergo PCR tests nor self-isolate for any period of time upon arrival in either Greece or Cyprus once travel resumes. Passenger flights are currently banned with Israel’s airport remaining closed to all non-emergency travel despite the country’s widely praised vaccination campaign.

“This is a first step in restoring the connectivity between the two countries,” the Greek Cypriot transport minister, Yiannis Karousos, told the Cyprus news agency on Monday. “It is very important and will be combined with other support measures that will be announced soon.”

Karousos, who was previously mayor of the resort of Ayia Napa, a magnet for young Israelis in summer, did not rule out similar arrangements being made with other countries. But with the island only gradually emerging from its second lockdown following a surge in cases after Christmas, he insisted the health ministry would continue to carry out tests on passengers if deemed necessary.

Describing the accord as a “huge achievement”, Cyprus’s deputy tourism minister, Savvas Perdios, said over 300,000 Israeli holidaymakers flew into the island in 2019. Another 40,000 had arrived on cruise ships. “Israel is effectively one of the most important markets for us in terms of tourism and this agreement will certainly boost our economy,” he said.

Although Greece has fared better than most other countries in Europe with its coronavirus case count at 172,824 and death toll at just over 6,000, it experienced a massive drop in arrivals last year.

Tourism accounts for more than 20% of the nation’s GDP. Athens’s centre right government hopes to revive the sector by 1 June amid forecasts of the country attracting at least half of the 31.3 million visitors who flew in before the pandemic.