Tourism bodies and municipal authorities in the northern Aegean reacted angrily to a letter by Alternate Foreign Minister George Katrougalos informing them that the European Commission rejected the extension of a visa facilitation pilot program that allowed Turkish nationals to travel to the islands of the eastern Aegean without applying for a visa at the Greek consulate.
According to the program, Turkish tourists who wished to visit the islands of Lesvos, Rhodes, Kos, Samos, Chios, Symi and Kastellorizo for a limited period of time could issue visas at the ports of these islands. The measure was introduced in an effort to boost tourism revenues.
In a joint press release, Lesvos’ Chamber of Commerce, the Union of Tourism, Travel and Shipping Agents and island’s Hoteliers Association criticized the government’s response, saying its interest in the issue is restricted “to meetings and announcements to the media”.
“It appears that the European Commission decided to eliminate the islands of the Eastern Aegean and especially Lesvos and punish them. In other words, some people decided that the islands of the eastern Aegean and Lesvos can only receive migrants and refugees but not tourists. Why are the islands treated like this after carrying the burden of the refugee problem with humanity?” the bodies said.
“We call on everyone and especially the Greek government, which apart from meetings and announcements to the media have done nothing for Lesvos, to get serious and take all necessary steps to solve the problem that has been created, as if the problems and disasters they have brought on us were not enough. Our perseverance and our tolerance have been exhausted,” they added.
On her side, the Prefect of Northern Aegean Christiana Kalogirou responded to Katrougalos asking to do everything in its power to reverse the decision.
“Clearly, the gravity of the matter has not been made clear. For us and the people who insist on living and fighting for our islands, [the EU’s response] resigning in advance is not acceptable,” she wrote. “It is more than self-evident that the Greek State will have to insist and exhaust any possibility, in line with government commitments.”
Earlier in the day, Katrougalos sent a letter to Kalogirou informing her about the Commission’s decision.
“I would like to inform you that despite strenuous efforts and continuous interventions of the Foreign Ministry, both towards the European Commission and the European Commission Vice-President [Frans] Timmermans, Migration Commissioner [Dimitris] Avramopoulos and the Director General of the Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs [Matthias] Ruete, it was not possible to extend the pilot visa facilitation program for the islands of the northern and southern Aegean after October 30, 2016,” the minister said.