Symi in the first two weeks of April was a turbulent place, alternating between strong southerly winds laden with Saharan sand (spiced up with some volcanic ash from Mount Etna’s latest eruptions) and northerly gales that took temperatures back down into single figures for a few days. Blue Star ferries managed to adhere to their scheduled routes but Dodecanese Seaways, with much smaller and lighter craft, had to cancel or reschedule some routes as they cannot run over a Force 6.
It has been a dry spring and it has been more than a month since Symi last had significant rains. The sheep are munching faster than the flowers are growing. The hills and valleys are rapidly reverting to summer brown as you can see from the photographs.
You will notice that I have not mentioned the C word or travel in this blog. This is because the situation is changing hourly these days, with the run up to Greek Easter, and anything I tell you or give you links to is likely to be superceded by something else by the time you read it.
Greece went into its second lockdown on 7 November 2020, initially until the 30th of that month. The figures continued to rise and the lockdown was extended – and extended – and extended again. Since that date no one has been allowed to travel to or from Symi unless they have very specific reasons to do so and can produce documentary evidence of that reason. Effectively we are living in a very efficient quarantine bubble with nary a winter cold or sniffle to be seen. What keeps coronavirus out also keeps colds, flu and other contagious diseases out too. This could be the island’s healthiest winter ever – even if also the most boring!
Retail restrictions were partially lifted in Greece a couple of weeks ago but on Symi that has made little difference – it is in Athens and Thessaloniki that shoppers starved of retail therapy have thronged Hermes Street and in Rhodes that people from outlying villages have queued to get into Jumbo and Zara.
Meanwhile, on Symi where retail excitements tend to focus rather on who currently has the freshest root ginger and whether the Chinese shop in Chorio has cheap fleeces in the right size, there is no sign of a shopping frenzy. Instead, as there is no limit on the number of times one can send SMS code 6 or how long one can stay out for personal exercise, as long as the regulations are obeyed, Symi people are rediscovering their island in a big way.
Remote mountain chapels, abandoned farmsteads, long forgotten archaeological sites and indigenous forests are seeing more activity than they have in decades as locals and expat residents alike go hiking every sunny day. A spin off of this is that Symi’s vast natural resources are finally getting the attention that they deserve and the rationale behind walking trails and attracting walkers back to the island is being understood. One can only hope that this does not precipitate another rush of hastily laid concrete paths but leads to a controlled project to restore the old kalderimis and to reinstate the access points that were destroyed when the road to Panormitis was tarred. Symi is not just a beach destination and there is more to the island than the neo-classical harbour.
As I write this we are once again waiting to find out if the lockdown regulations are changing. Will the high schools reopen on Monday as intended or will the increase in cases in Attica roll this back? Will the shops be closed again because people in Athens cannot be trusted to behave responsibly when given the opportunity to buy Marks and Spencers knickers in person rather than on line? Who knows. The only certainty is that every sunny winter’s day there will be people walking up and down Symi, from end to end, enjoying the views from mountain tops and counting how many islands they can spot on a clear day.
Today is 30 September but on Symi it feels a lot like 31 October. The speed with which seasonal activities are shutting down on the island this year is startling, but understandable in the Year of the Virus. With so few tourists around and a cloud of uncertainty it does not make sense for small businesses to struggle on into October, looking for the money to pay staff, insurance and buy perishable stock that will not be sold or eaten.
As we slip into October the ferry schedules are tailing off into winter mode. Dodecanese Seaways has significantly cut back on the service to Symi and, as was the case earlier in the season, some days will be filled in on an ad hoc basis with little advance warning. Blue Star ferries still comes through three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Monday and Wednesday are incredibly early, entailing being down on the dock before 5 in the morning and arriving in Rhodes shortly after 6, long before anything is open. Friday is considerably more civilised, with the boat leaving Symi just after 8, making this the most popular day for trips to Rhodes for the locals. The SAOS Stavros plods on regardless with only slight changes to times for October.
There is a lot of speculation and chatter regarding what is likely to happen – or not happen – about the Panormitis Festival this year. Will the usual week-long fair be allowed to take place? Will pilgrims be allowed to come to the monastery from all over the islands and sleep in dormitories and on the verandahs? Is it even worth wondering about it when we still have October to get through and a week is a long time in 2020? Watch this space – if I hear anything, I will let you know!
After a hectic few weeks of a highly compressed tourist season I thought I would post a few ‘September Postcards from Symi’ to share with you. To my horror, WordPress have decided to ‘improve’ their product. I am still coming to grips with the enforced ‘improvements’ to the new Facebook which seems to involve more scrolling to access less information. I did not expect WordPress to also spring such enforced changes upon me without the option of reverting back to the familiar Classic without having to locate and download some sort of plug-in. While the new Block system may be wonderful, I do not have time this morning to indulge in several hours of learning curve to work out how to upload photographs in the new format.
The pictures are formated and ready to upload. Perhaps I will have time this afternoon. My intentions are good. Promise!
In theory Greece is almost back to ‘normal’ in terms of the businesses that are allowed to operate. The children are back in school and parents are back at work. The all-year-round hotels are open and the international/tourist/seasonal ones can reopen on 15 June. We can go to cafes, bars, restaurants and the beach. All of the above, of course, with various regulations and social distancing requirements.
In practice the picture on Symi and various other places where the economy is entirely tourism driven is quite different. When there are no tourists, there are no customers. The sunbeds and umbrellas may be at the decreed spacing and the taverna menus on display but without tourists they remain empty. Aside from people working in two banks, the post office and the power station, just about everyone else has been out of work since last October so there is no money to spend on outings and treats. The island’s core economy currently seems to be dependent on the resident expat pensioners whose income, at least so far, has remained stable, but there is a limit to even their capacity for drinks in the square and coffees in the cafes.
International tourism in Greece only starts officially on 15 June and then only from a list of countries with low levels of infection. All these flights have to come through Athens as direct international flights to the islands only start on 1 July. People can come from other places but they are then subject to quarantine which means that if you want to come to Greece on holiday you may spend the first 7 or 14 days, depending on whether you test negative or positive for Covid-19 on arrival, in quarantine. That could mean a week or two in a room in a quarantine hotel in Athens or unable to leave your accommodation elsewhere if you are allowed to continue your journey to your end destination. That doesn’t help tourism much but it is A Good Thing for people who need to get to Greece to take up contracts for work, are employed in seasonal work, have houses here and intend to spend months or years in Greece.
Unfortunately everyone’s fears about the wisdom of international travel were confirmed when a Qatar Air flight from Doha arrived in Athens on Monday and out of the 91 passengers on board, 12 of them tested positive for the virus. Three of these, two Australian Greeks and one Japanese Greek, were technically from countries that are on Greece’s approved flight list and if they had come into the country after 15 June may well have only had random spot testing rather than the full blown test-and-quarantine-everybody policy that is currently in place. Needless to say, Qatar flights from Doha have been suspended until 15 June while the powers that be decide how to hack this one.
As most UK airports are on the black list and in any case the British Foreign Office is still advising against non-essential travel, Symi’s usual British travellers are not allowed to travel. As they are the dominant groups in May, June, September and October, that is already a large chunk of the island’s income gone. The Australians are trapped by their own government for the foreseeable future so no diaspora Greeks coming to visit family this summer. The Danes are on the approved list but their government won’t allow them out until 31 August. The French, another nationality that plays a major part in Symi’s summer tourism, are also still waiting to be allowed out of France (by their government) and into Greece. Ditto the Italians, the Spaniards and so on.
Do you book in the hope that you may be allowed to travel or do you wait to see what happens? As airlines are also in a quandary, flights booked get cancelled or rescheduled as passengers are too few to cover costs so it all becomes self perpetuating. Then there are all those people who are still trying to get refunds, vouchers and what have you for flights and holidays over March, April, May and June that have been cancelled. Do they feel strong enough to go through it all again? Better wait until next year when everything has calmed down…
With so many uncertainties many of Symi’s regular visitors, including property owners, have had to cancel their plans, particularly if they have children and are tied to school holidays. If they have to take a ‘staycation’ within their home country’s borders, they need to book now before all the best places are gone.
The motto for this year seems to be ‘we shall see’.
Today’s the big day. The coffee shops, restaurants, gyros bars and tavernas are allowed to open for the first time since mid-March. Those businesses that have decided to reopen today have been a flurry of activity with tape measures to ensure that the correct spacing is maintained for the placement of tables and chairs. On the beaches, umbrellas are being dug in at the approved spacing which, on Symi, is actually not to different to previous years.
At this stage only a handful of businesses on Symi have opted to re-open now. It costs a lot to stock and staff a taverna or restaurant and once you are open for business, the meter starts running on a lot of overheads. Some business owners are still stuck in other countries or parts of Greece as a result of the various travel restrictions and need to make their way back to Greece. Likewise staff may also be in the wrong places and still need to get their health papers sorted out before they can start work. As the country does not open to international tourism of any kind for another 3 weeks, there really isn’t any need to rush.
Today is also the day when people can start travelling on the ferries again. Both of these sound quite straightforward but in reality there is quite a lot of bureaucracy involved including filling in a health form before being able to buy ferry tickets, social distancing on the boats so they are only travelling with half capacity and masks to be worn. Only one person per cabin unless they are members of the same family.
There are also still a lot of restrictions in place regarding vehicle transport. Meanwhile hoteliers, camp site owners and all the others involved in tourism in any shape or form are wading their way through 20 pages of instructions from the Ministry of Tourism concerning cleaning protocols, social distancing requirements, swimming pool hygiene, transfers of tourists from A to B and so on. We may be sure that this summer there will be inspectors for everything – there usually are!
Meanwhile it is still unknown where the tourists will come from to use these facilities. Aside from the fact that many people are wary of travelling at the moment, even if they can, there are still travel restrictions of one sort or another in place, either at the Greek border or out-going/in-coming for other countries. The Greek government has said that they will be issuing a list at the end of this month of the first wave of nationalities that will be welcome to visit Greece, based on epidemiological criteria. We shall have to wait and see.
I am sure that we all agree that 2020 has been a strange year thus far and that there are likely to be far-reaching changes ahead for how we do things. Greece has been fortunate in that the New Democracy government under Mitsotakis responded rapidly to the outbreak of the novel corona virus known as Covid-19 with the result that Greece is now able to tentatively reopen to international tourism on 1 July. The Byzantine rules and regulations that will be accompanying that are still being hammered out, including from which countries people will be allowed to travel, so that is the subject for a later post.
On a small island like Symi tourism in its various forms is the main revenue stream and local entrepreneurs have had to look at different ways of doing business in these days of travel restrictions, complex bureaucracy and job losses. Turning to on-line marketing is one way. Today’s post is the first of a number I shall be doing to promote locals who have reinvented themselves through on-line marketing in these challenging times.
Anyone who has visited Symi in the last 30 years will most likely have bought at least one sponge from Panormitis’ Symi Sponges, either from his original shop on the waterfront in Yialos or his new one, further back off the square. In keeping with changing times you can now buy quality sponges, pumice stones, loofahs and body butter on line through their new website.
Prices are quoted in euros but you can order from anywhere internationally or in the EU and prices include shipping. Payment is through PayPal or bank transfer. You can also order gift packs to surprise a special someone in your life. As an early bird promotion, if you order now you will receive a free facial sponge with every order of body butter.
Even if you are missing your usual annual pilgrimage to Symi you can still buy your favourite souvenir and help support a traditional Symi family business. You can find Symi Sponges here and on Facebook.