As wildfires rage in Greece, tourists flee and locals shelter

As wildfires rage in Greece, tourists flee and locals shelter

By Fedja Grulovic

RHODES, Greece (Reuters) -More than 2,000 holidaymakers were flown home on Monday, tour operators cancelled upcoming trips, and residents took shelter as wildfires raged on the Greek island of Rhodes for the seventh day.

Repatriation flights are due to continue into Tuesday as the fires remained out of control. The Civil Protection authority warned the threat of further blazes was high in almost every part of Greece, which is in the grip of a record-breaking heatwave that has also seen archaeological sites close.

TUI, one of the world's largest tour operators, said it was cancelling trips to the island through Friday and offering free cancellations or rebookings to other destinations. It said it had 39,000 customers on Rhodes as of Sunday evening.

On Monday, it deployed six extra planes to fly tourists home to Britain and Germany. The Greek islands are popular with sunseeking tourists from around Europe in the summer and particularly Brits and Germans.

The Dutch foreign ministry issued a travel warning for Rhodes, as well as the islands of Corfu and Evia, where wildfires had also broken out.

Some 20,000 people were forced to leave homes and hotels in Rhodes over the weekend as the inferno that began last Tuesday reached coastal resorts on the island's southeast.

A fire brigade spokesperson said hundreds more people were evacuated from two other areas of Rhodes on Monday and seven firefighting aircraft would continue battling the flames until nightfall.

"Firefighting forces have not stopped operating since Tuesday," spokesperson Ioanis Artopios told Reuters. "Crews have been heading from Athens to replace their colleagues... they are working in very tough conditions amid extreme heat."

Greek coastguard vessels have also been patrolling the coastline, having evacuated some tourists by sea at the weekend.

The Greek government said authorities were carrying out the largest evacuation ever undertaken in the country.

"For the next few weeks we must be on constant alert. We are at war. We will rebuild what we lost, we will compensate those who were hurt," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament.

"The climate crisis is already here, it will manifest itself everywhere in the Mediterranean with greater disasters," he said.

After leaving hotels and resorts, many tourists spent Sunday night on Rhodes airport floor, waiting for repatriation flights.

From Sunday until 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) on Monday, 2,115 tourists were flown home, mainly to Britain, Germany and Italy, on 17 flights, the Greek transport ministry said.

At Cologne-Bonn Airport, returning German tourists talked of holidays in the sun turned into torment, one relating how her family had to walk 11 km (7 miles) to safety.

"We wanted to drink and people were standing at their houses and sprayed us from their hoses and we drank out of the hoses. Everyone was just walking and we didn't know where to," Violetta Kaczmarzyk told Reuters.

Others expressed their relief to have escaped.

For local residents though, there was no let-up.

In the southern resort of Kiotari, smoke wafted across its empty beach and a singed Greek flag waved over a burned-out truck. Many local residents sheltered at a restaurant near the coast, fearing for their homes. Others poured sea water into a large tank stacked on a truck to battle the flames.

"The wind is very high today. It will be worse Wednesday. It's very, very bad, the situation. We need help. Send us help from everywhere," said local resident Lanai Karpataki.


TUI, Britain's easyJet and Jet 2 all laid on extra flights. Air France was also flying from Rhodes with increased capacity.

Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O'Leary said his airline had not seen passengers seeking to cancel flights to Rhodes over the weekend, given fires were more in the south of the island and the airport and most resorts in the north.

Greece is often hit by wildfires during the summer months but climate change has led to more extreme heatwaves across southern Europe, raising concerns that tourists will stay away.

Tourism accounts for 18% of Greece's GDP and one in five jobs. On Rhodes and many other Greek islands, reliance on tourism is even greater.

In a report on Monday, Moody's ratings agency warned heatwaves may reduce southern Europe's attractiveness as a tourist destination in the longer term, or at least summer demand, hurting the economy of the region.

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris, Renee Maltezou and Angeliki Koutantou in Athens, Michele Kambas in Nicosia, Padraic Halpin in Dublin and Sarah Young in London; Writing by Philip Blenkinsop and Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Rosalba O'Brien)