COMMUNITY

Balkan tourists packing their camper vans for northern Greece

STAVROS TZIMAS

Armenistis beach in Halkidiki is very popular with campers from the Balkans. [Shutterstock]

TAGS: Tourism, Coronavirus

In Gevgelija, North Macedonia, Alexander Alexov is preparing to make the road trip to Greece. The border between the two countries reopens on June 15, which means he will be able to travel to the Halkidiki peninsula. Over the past 30 years, Alexov has spent most summers at the Armenistis campsite in Sithonia.

Speaking to Kathimerini, he says he is extremely happy because he and his family will get a chance to enjoy the sun and the sea at this “magical place.” He has already reserved a spot for his camper trailer and, as he says, “there are many people in Gevgelija and Skopje who are getting ready to drive south to Greece.”

Fabio Botta from Como, Italy, has been visiting the same campsite with over a dozen friends for several years. He is not sure they will be able to travel this year due to Italy’s devastating coronavirus numbers. But he’s keeping his fingers crossed.

Ivanka Yosifova from Sofia has been a regular visitor to the beaches of Halkidiki for the past 10 years. “I can’t wait for the borders to reopen so I can spend my holidays there again. It’s a great place. It’s calm, the sea is clean and the food is good. Bulgarians are really fond of Greece.”

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of tourists on the other side of Greece’s northern border are expected to flock to the country’s beaches in the coming weeks. Should Greece lift its travel restrictions on Italy [reports on June 9 said that Greece will begin to gradually lift restrictions on Italian travelers], then thousands of tourists from the neighboring country will be expected to follow suit around August.

“Bulgarians and Romanians are booking campgrounds in Greece en masse. Bulgarians are eager to spend their holidays in Greece. A distance of 6 meters must be maintained between tents,” said a report on a local website.

“The only way to stop the Bulgarians from going to Greece for holidays is to chain them up,” said Nikolay Vitanov, a member of the country’s scientific committee tasked with managing the coronavirus outbreak. A poll conducted by Bulgaria’s BTA news agency found that two in three Bulgarians planning to travel outside their country this year would visit Greece.

Greece tops the list of tourism destinations for Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians and North Macedonians. It is estimated that between 8 and 10 million Balkan tourists flocked to resorts along the Thrace coastline, Asprovalta, Halkidiki, Pieria, Thessaloniki, Epirus, the island of Thassos and the Sporades cluster in the northwestern Aegean as well as the Ionian islands last year. Meanwhile, about 3.5 million visitors from Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine crossed the Makaza-Nymfaia checkpoint in Rodopi.

Greece’s northern neighbors are close enough to travel those familiar, beautiful and coronavirus-free tourism resorts without having to fly.

Tourism businesses in northern Greece are working around the clock to welcome visitors from the Balkans in accordance with formal guidelines. Demand for campgrounds is strong.

“Tourists feel safer here: They have their camper trailers or tents and they don’t have to pack into large hotels,” says Antonis Stamboulidis, director at Armenistis.

Representatives from 35 campgrounds recently sent a joint petition to the Tourism Ministry asking that the obligatory distance between camper trailers be reduced from 3 meters, as laid out in the government directive, to 1.5 meters.

Hoteliers and owners of vacation rentals in the area are also hastening to get ready, hoping that guests from neighboring countries will provide some relief to the crisis-hit sector.

Serbian holidaymakers are expected to return this year to Kassandra (in Halkidiki), Corfu, Skiathos and Rhodes.

Montenegro’s decision to not open the border with Serbia this year due to coronavirus fears is expected to boost the wave toward Greece.

Meanwhile, the beaches of Platamonas, Peraia (in Thessaloniki) and Halkidiki are a popular destination for tourists from North Macedonia. “Everyone here is talking about when they will be able to travel to Greece,” a Skopje-based journalist said.

Turkey’s coastal resorts are also offering attractive packages to Balkan tourists, but their appeal is for the time overshadowed by the country’s coronavirus figures.

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