as in “the end of the world”, thousands of tourists flee the island of Rhodes

Robert Collins
Robert Collins

Global Courant

The images seem from the end of the world. Desperate British families with children drag their suitcases along the beach, fleeing from the burning hotel or the approaching fire. Others come out with what they are wearing. The flames are too close, the firefighters cannot cope and the tourists are left alone in the hotels, abandoned to their fate in Rhodes, in this new wave of fires in Greece.

Other tourists have been rescued by the Greeks, in their own cars, to help get them out of that hell. Thousands of Britons are rushing off Rhodes and the evacuation effort has spread to two other Greek islands as bushfires continue to rage.

Evacuation efforts have also started in Corfu, in the area called “Kensington on the sea” by the richest Britons, and in Evia, where everything is burning.

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Fires light up the night sky in Greece. Photo: EFE

There are believed to be at least 10,000 British tourists on the island of Rhodes, according to Andrew Mitchell, a minister in the British Foreign Office. The fires devastate the south of the island and in their wake burn hotels, summer villas and houses of local inhabitants.

The largest evacuation in history

Greece launched its biggest-ever evacuation effort on Sunday, moving 19,000 people, mainly tourists, from towns and resorts in Rhodes as wildfires, fanned by high-speed winds, raged across the country for a sixth day.

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The exclusive island of Corfu, also affected. Photo: Reuters

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British low-cost airlines sell packages with hotels included in Greece, and English families are the main clients of this method.

Travel companies and airlines were encouraged by the British government on Sunday to reimburse passengers who had decided not to fly to Rhodes.

repatriation flights

Repatriation flights resumed on Monday under pressure from the British government. Initially the airlines and agencies, which sell their tourist packages to the British, had disengaged on Sunday. Ryanair continues with its tourist flights to the island.

But the passengers who took those flights denounced that they go “with half of the seats empty due to the lack of coordination and the bad communication.” The TUIT company should have recognized this and said that it was due to the cuts in communications.

Passengers who managed to leave Rhodes and land at Schipol airport. Photo: Jeffrey Groeneweg/ AFP

Tourists sleep on the street

Thousands of tourists were forced to spend another night in temporary accommodation, sleeping on the floor of the Rhodes airport, as well as in sports halls, conference centers and on the streets.

The British Foreign Office sent a Rapid Displacement Team to Rhodes to support tour operators in bringing tourists home.

In total, firefighters were trying to contain 82 forest fires across Greece overnight from Sunday to Monday, 64 of which started over the weekend.

“We are in a war against fires,” British Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, calling on people to remain vigilant. In Rhodes there are 15 hydrant planes operating. They will compensate everyone affected.

British minister Andrew Mitchell told Times Radio on Monday: “Our hearts go out to the 7,000 to 10,000 Brits who are on holiday in Rhodes. I have no doubts about the stress and anxiety it has caused.”

But so far London has not announced military repatriation flights.

“Three TUI flights were made overnight to return people to the UK from Rhodes,” the TUI company said.

“We are now working hard to get everyone home safely. Our first passengers returned to the UK on three dedicated overnight flights and we have plans to get all those affected back as soon as possible,” a TUI UK and Ireland spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.

The companies organize

The first unscheduled Jet2 flight from Rhodes landed in Leeds late at night. The airline has announced another three rescue flights, in addition to the 50 scheduled flights in operation.

Columns of smoke and fire, in Corfu. Photo: Reuters

“We have also significantly increased our presence on the island, with experienced colleagues arriving from other destinations, as well as a dedicated senior team who flew from the UK to Rhodes yesterday (Sunday),” the company said in response to criticism over the disappearance of hotel and airport representatives.

“These colleagues are there to look after our clients at the evacuation centers, at the resorts and at Rhodes airport. We also have transfer coaches taking clients to the airport from the evacuation centers today.”

“There are up to 10,000 British tourists in Rhodes as bushfires rage through parts of the Greek island,” a Foreign Office minister said.

More repatriation flights to the UK were expected on Monday as part of efforts to get hundreds of stranded British tourists off the island.

Evacuation in Corfu

Maritime evacuations have also begun, from a beach in Corfu, to transport people fleeing the bushfires on the Greek island last night.

Tourists are evacuated by sea from the island of Corfu. Photo: Reuters

“The evacuation involved six coast guard boats and nine private boats, with around 59 people evacuated from Nissaki beach on the northwest coast,” the coast guard said.

Asked how many UK tourists are in Corfu, the Foreign Office minister said: “We’re not sure how many are in Corfu. But the position in Corfu is very different.”

“The fires are not breaking out in residential areas or holiday areas. Although some people were temporarily relocated, they have now been returned to their accommodation.”

Mitchell also said it’s “difficult to say” whether the bushfires on the islands will get better or worse. He said that “it depends on which way the wind is blowing and how fiercely it is blowing.”

Tourist complaints

Newly arrived passengers in the Netherlands from the island of Rhodes. Photo: Growneweb/ AFP

The minister also assured that tour operators “can and should be as close as possible to the people whose holidays they have organised”, as British tourists have accused companies such as Jet2 and TUI of dropping them off at their hotels, without any guidance.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged tourists affected by the wildfires in Greece to stay in touch with tour operators.

During a visit to the West Midlands, Sunak said: “My top priority is the safety of British citizens. That is why the Deputy Prime Minister chaired a Cobra meeting yesterday. He has been monitoring the situation closely.”

Evia evacuated, and Crete is threatened

Meanwhile, evacuations have been underway on a third Greek island hit by wildfires, according to reports: Evia

A man watches the fires approach on the island of Evia. Photo: AP

Some 77 firefighters and 25 tankers are battling scattered outbreaks in Evia, east of Athens, the Greek state agency ANA-MPA said, citing the fire department.

It comes as Professor Stefan Doer, director of Swansea University’s bushfire research centre, said other holiday islands, “such as Crete”, may also be at risk of bushfires.

Professor Doer said “insufficient vegetation management” and more extreme weather due to climate change have created “more flammable landscapes” on the Greek islands.

Firefighters work in the northern part of Corfu. Photo: Konontarinis Giorg/ AFP

On Sunday night, local authorities ordered the evacuation of five beach settlements in Corfu.

However, Mitchell told BBC Breakfast on Monday morning: “The information that I had a minute before this interview started is that there are no evacuations from Corfu. There was movement of people overnight within Corfu. But this morning they were sent back to their previous quarters. So I expect the situation to be a bit better and more stable than their reports suggest.”

Holiday companies Tui and Thomas Cook have canceled trips to Rhodes. However, Tui was criticized for continuing to send people to the island on Sunday, even when the gravity of the situation was clear.

The company recalled that only 10% of the island is affected by these fires and, therefore, it is tourism companies and vacation experts who are in the best position to give guidance on whether or not a family’s or individual’s vacation is going to be ruined by these events.”

Paris, correspondent


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