This isn't really a post about how we wined and dined in Crete. Nor is it about how I dominated our rounds of Uno at various bars (I am checking to see if my friends actually read my posts, with this statement :D). Nor is it or how we basked in 29-30 degree sunshine for a week. This post is about the differences, the new restrictions and observations I made between pre and post pandemic travel.
Restrictions in Finland.
On the 8th July Finland the country I live in, lifted restrictions on travelling to any country that had less than 8 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 people from the previous 14 days for Schengen countries. That meant that holiday destinations opened up to the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Iceland, Greece, Norway, Malta, Liechtenstein, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia, Denmark, Hungary and Estonia.
Three hours after that announcement on the 8th we had booked a trip to Platanias, near Chania in Crete the Greek Island on what turned out to be the first holiday flight out of the country since restrictions started in March.
Prior to the flight we were asked to fill in an extra identification form, it reminded me of an ESTA you have to have to enter the USA, but with less information and formality. You had to inform where you'd been for the previous 2 weeks, where you'd be in the country and how long you were staying. You also got a barcode you had to show along with your passport upon leaving Finland and entry to Crete. This was to prove you had made these declarations and presumably identify your visit location to the authorities. I thought this was quite smart as if you caught the virus on your visit they could track back to the other visitors on the plane, isolate, test them and quickly control any new outbreaks.
First flight out
As well as a full capacity flight with TUI, we were accompanied by reporters and photographers from Ilta Sanomat, one of the biggest newspapers in Finland for the maiden holiday flight of the year from Finland.
Upon arriving at the airport in Helsinki I'd say it was running at about 10-20% capacity. I noticed around 3 or 4 open restaurants and very few passengers moving around.
It felt quite eerie I have to say.
Due to the pandemic, restrictions were in place and from entering the airport everyone had to wear masks when they weren't eating. The picture of me wearing mine shows how people travelling in airports might look for the for-seeable future, though maybe less people will adopt the bank robber look that I went with.
A note on travelling in a mask. I totally support it but I found it a big pain in the arse to wear. They're uncomfortable, kept riding up thus blocking the vision and you lose the novelty value after about 2 minutes. I do get that it's a safety procedure and find any arguments against them, especially those invoking a god given right to use your mouth to breathe, totally stupid. However there has to be a better way if this becomes the new way to travel between destinations in crowded areas. The journey on the plane required mask wearing at all times apart from eating from both the flight staff and the passengers. I went into my own little world of Spotify, Kindle and Bose reduced noise on route to Crete which is a little unusual for me on a holiday trip.
Arriving at our destination
Upon arrival at Chania airport we were the only people, aside from half a dozen or so landing crew and border processing people. Again, very eerie. There were also some staff taking random tests of passengers. We're not sure how many, but it was more than the "one person" IltaSanomat reported, because one of our party was tested and at least 2 others were taken to the testing area while I was waiting to be processed. Suffice to say the vast majority of people simply wore masks and went to collect their bags as normal, but I'd guess maybe 10-15 people were tested.
My friend said the procedure was a swab collected from the back of the throat. She was then told that she should self isolate with her travel party for 24 hours. If she hadn't heard anything in 48 hours the test result would be negative. She didn't hear anything.
Transit restrictions in Crete
When we got to Crete and left the airport I thought I could finally get rid of the mask. Wrong! We had to wear them while in taxis or in transit on public transport. In Crete it was 29 degrees and the mask became more irritating. They were hot and generally uncomfortable even for a short distances. There is an opportunity for some budding entrepreneur to come up with a better solution that helps keep people safe but is also less annoying.
Another restriction is that taxis are only allowed to have 4 people total including the driver. This was the one rule that we broke pretty much every time as we were a party of 4. Most drivers didn't even say anything but two of them did mention we should only be 4 before relenting and letting us all travel in the same cab. Apparently the rule is maximum 3 adults or 2 adults and 2 children whilst in transit. This was a rule taxi drivers seemed to have differing opinions about and we weren't told about this till half way through our trip (by one of the drivers).
First customers of the hotel
When we arrived at our hotel (Erato) the host said we were the first guests of the year and that Platanias generally had only opened 2 days ago. From the outset, booking the trip was different. Many of the bigger hotels were not taking bookings.
Andreas our main host, who ran the services at the beach told us that hotels with capacity higher than 60 were not opening as demand was still too low to justify costs.
Heading to the beach we immediately saw why. Platanias had only been open for 2 days. No-one was there. All the sun decks were out, all socially distanced in pairs, but no-one was sitting in them. This changed during the week as more flights came in but our beach was never what you'd consider packed.
At this point I really started to feel for the locals as the economic impact of Covid-19 really hit home. Really nice people who have literally no other way than to rely on government help till Tourism returns. Andreas cheerfully told me that this year was already shot in terms revenues, but that "everything helped", so we endeavoured to spend as much as we could at his pool bar.
What about tours and activities?
The advertising generally on the island was not optimal. I realise a lot of places were closed which means advertising is pointless anyway, but for the places open a lot of opportunities were missed, especially when visitor numbers are low. 80% of activities purchased happen in destination.
Tourists see and do things they are attracted to in the area they visit, and they book while they are there. However when your advertising is this bad it's difficult to help anyone understand what you're offering and sell anything.
This business was open, but from the other side of the street I had no idea what they offered, how to contact them to find out, what their web address was, what phone number was.
Upon approaching their stand there were no leaflets, no further information apart from a few pictures that suggested they offered a variety of activities across the island. The person who was supposed to be on hand to help guide people about their offers had left a note on the desk saying "back at 4pm". That was it. I guess if I was super interested I might have gone back at 4pm, however it was much more likely that by then I would've moved on to something else so it was an opportunity missed.
Some however did get it right
This beer mat we found in one of the local bars was a well thought out in destination advertisement.
It told you what it was about immediately and gave you a way to book directly from its website clearly displayed on the mat itself.
While I was in the bar I went to the website and made a booking for 4 for the same evening. We weren't the only ones who'd done that. As we got there we were happy to see that the restaurant part of the bar was about half full, all the guests were buying food, beer tastings and tours. I'd say during our 2 hour stay there were about 20 people being served.
Bear in mind this required that you travel inland in a taxi for 20 minutes to reach, the advertising worked very well for the brewery. For the beer fans among you the Charma lager or pale ale is easily the best tasting on the island. As with everywhere in Crete the service staff wore a mask but the guests didn't have too. Most of the services were held outside anyway taking advantage of the great weather and social distancing between groups was very well observed, so I felt totally at ease.
All in all good or bad?
Apart from the mask this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Even the mask was only a minor irritation and as it helps people stay safe, like I said I have no problem with it. I just think it's possible to improve.
We quite enjoyed having our own private beach, pool and services. We got to know the people who were serving us a little more than we would normally, found out about their family business, visited their family restaurant and had a genuinely good time with them. They were more like an extension of our holiday experience than just people we met on holiday. Finland and Crete have overall handled the crisis well and I would have no problem recommending travel between the two countries. The main thing for me aside from a week relaxing was that it felt good to be away. It now feels like I've had a holiday this summer. I hope this inspires you to do the same.