The Acropolis is Greece's most visited tourist site. -AFP
Greece reopened the Acropolis in Athens and all open-air archaeological sites in the country to the public on Monday after a two-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A clutch of tourists and masked reporters gathered at the world-famous site, the most-visited monument in Greece. "We have never seen so few people at the Acropolis," a Russian visitor accompanied by her husband told AFP. "It's like having a private visit," said the woman, who has lived in Athens for five years. President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was among the first visitors to the ancient Greek complex that sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the capital and which had been closed ahead of the March 23 lockdown.
She celebrated being able to "visit the site again in a traditional way" after virtual visits were made available online for those still keen to experience the monument under lockdown. Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, journalists and employees many wearing face masks was also present for the opening, with new anti-virus measures enforced. Separation screens have been put up and the sites have been disinfected, the culture ministry said. Visitors will be encouraged to wear masks which will be compulsory for guides at the site and guests will be asked to stay 1.5 metres (five feet) apart.
"Security First" was touted as the country's new tourism slogan, a play on the pre-pandemic "Heritage First" phrase, Mendoni said Monday. "Hand sanitizer and face masks are distributed at the entrance, and social distancing will be encourage with markers on the ground," she said, adding that a maximum of 2,000 people will be able to visit the Acropolis at a time.
For Ukrainian student Daria, who arrived in Greece just before the lockdown was imposed, the long overdue visit was welcome, even under blazing summer heat. "We didn't have time to visit before, so we came today, and it's free!" She said alongside two other Ukrainian students.
Greece is dotted with dozens of temples, stadiums, theatres and citadels from Antiquity, including the Bronze Age Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete, and Olympus, cradle of the Olympic Games.
The Acropolis saw 2.9 million visitors last year, a 14.2 percent increase on the previous year. But all museums will not be open until June 15 under the government's plan to gradually lift restriction to halt the spread of COVID-19.
Open-air cinemas will open from June 1, while festivals and other cultural event will be held from mid July. Tourism is a major economic engine for Greece and has been hit hard by confinement measures in place to stem the spread of the virus.
Athens expects the economy to contract nearly five percent this year, partly due to the loss of tourism income from key markets such as Germany, Britain and the United States.
With 163 deaths from the virus, Greece started easing the measures this month after a six-week lockdown with an eye to salvaging the vital tourism season.
The country has suffered less from the pandemic than many other European nations and restaurants are due to resume trading from May 25, a week earlier than originally planned.
Mendoni praised the pandemic response and said it allowed for the gradual reopening of key tourist sites.
"This is a precious achievement, it allows for the resumption of the tourist season which will be extended to make up for" lost time, she said earlier.
--- AFP, Athens
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