Greece's quarantine-free holiday offer to Australians sounds too good to be true – and it is

Tourism (Australia)

Even the Greek ambassador acknowledges his country's travel offer breaches Australia's Covid-19 restrictions

A tavern in Karpathos. Greece might be offering Australians a quarantine-free welcome, but Australian officials point out a mid-pandemic getaway is illegal.Photograph: Constantinos Iliopoulos/Alamy Stock Photo

The Greek government has been making a pitch for Australians to visit for a quarantine-free Mediterranean summer holiday - and if this sounds too good to be true, it's probably because it is. After the Greek government last week confirmed Australia was one of 29 countries deemed safe to allow tourists to enter from without quarantining from 15 June, and later expanded this list to all but a few blacklisted countries worldwide, Australian government officials and public health experts have moved swiftly to point out that the mid-pandemic getaway not only poses significant health and financial risks, but is also illegal. 

Even Greece's ambassador to Australia, George Papacostas, has warned Australians not to take up the travel offer, conceding it would be illegal as it would breach the rule that Australians cannot leave the country due to Covid-19 restrictions, unless they have a special exemption.  He also acknowledged that while arrivals from Australian airports are exempt from quarantine, this route is technically impossible, given there are no direct flights to Greece and that the necessary transit through Qatar, UAE or Asia - which are on the airport blacklist - would void Greece's quarantine-free offer. The Greek plan, which allows quarantine-free entry and only randomised Covid-19 checks at its airports for tourists from most countries, is part of an initiative to revive the tourism industry that brought in 34 million visitors in 2019 and accounts for about 12% of GDP.

Any person arriving who tests positive will still have to quarantine for 14 days.  Travellers arriving from certain UK, European, South American, Asian and African airports deemed less safe will be subject to quarantine periods of seven days if they test negative, and 14 days if they test positive. The blacklist of airports will be revised on 1 July. 

Greece's push for Australian tourism comes as countries that have best contained Covid-19 jostle to join the travel bubble after it begins with New Zealand, with Israel seeking to introduce direct flights to Australia and offer quarantine-free entry by December, and position itself as a transit hub to safe European countries.  Also last week, the Japanese ministry of tourism was forced to deny claims it would pay half the cost of international tourists' expenses - an initiative only offered to boost domestic travel among its citizens - after media reports suggested the country was considering opening its borders to nations including Australia in the coming months. When asked what rules would apply to Australians travelling to Greece, a Department of Home Affairs spokeswoman warned citizens could only leave the country if they had a travel exemption, and that tourism was not a category for a travel exemption.

Returning Australians also have to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days. However, it appears if an Australian dual-national attempted to exit Australia on their foreign passport, they would not be required to provide proof of their exemption at an airport. The Guardian contacted the Australian Border Force for comment.

International flights out of Australia have all but come to a halt during the pandemic. There were just 12 scheduled departures out of Sydney airport on Tuesday, however more than half were cancelled and did not fly. The most direct routes to Greece transit via Doha, Dubai and Singapore, and cost between £1,400 and £2,100 return during the July school holidays.

Speaking to the Guardian, Papacostas said he "would like to stress that Australian citizens or permanent residents cannot leave Australia" to travel to Greece as part of its tourism push, but said he was now exploring "any kind of bilateral cooperation with any country to facilitate the travel" of Australians to Greece without quarantine once the border ban was lifted.  Peter Collignon, a professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University, said Greece's tourism push was premature, and flagged a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 if Australians evaded border closures and travelled to Greece.  He said the risk is heightened because Greece's testing regime is not as strong as Australia's, and noted Greece's lenient inclusion of other countries on the quarantine exemption arrangement.

"I would be worried about going to a place where there's not been the same amount of testing as Australia. You've got to assume both the guests you're with and people in your hotel could be carrying Covid-19.  "Countries thought to be containing this relatively well, like Germany, still have 600 cases a day," he said of German tourists, who will also be allowed into Greece.

"We can't even go to Queensland now, let alone Greece," Collignon said, also noting the financial risk travellers would be exposed to without travel insurance.  His concern was backed by the Insurance Council of Australia spokesman Campbell Fuller, who said that no insurers were offering travel products for Greece and any policies offered would have pandemic-related exclusions. "You will not be able to make any claims related to the pandemic, if there are cancellations or travel delays as a result of outbreaks, or any medical issues related to Covid-19 ...

So Greece can make an announcement but that's not something the industry will take much notice of," Fuller said. 

Collignon also commented on the longer term plans for Israel and Japan to have a quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia, saying the initiatives would be possible but will require the countries to have had "several months of no great outbreaks" by the end of the year.

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