Czech tourists on Rhodes complain of chaos and poor communication during evacuation

A fire burns next to a road in the village of Agia Sotira near Athens.

Firefighters in Greece have been struggling to contain wildfires which have been burning across the country for the past week. The island of Rhodes, from which 19,000 have fled, is the worst-hit. Czech tourists there have begun to be flown home on repatriation flights, but many complain of chaos and poor communication from travel agencies.

A man carries a child as they leave area where the forest fire is burning,  on the island of Rhodes,  Greece | Photo: Lefteris Damianidis,  ČTK/AP

Since Saturday evening, thousands of people in Rhodes have been evacuated, mainly from resorts on the south-eastern coast. This includes hundreds of Czechs, most of whom were there on package tours with travel agencies. According to Czech Foreign Ministry estimates, there are currently around 5,000 Czechs on the island and several hundred of them have already returned home prematurely on repatriation flights organised by travel agencies. Three planes filled with hundreds of Czech tourists landed in Prague during Sunday night.

However, many of these returning tourists complained of chaotic transfers and a lack of communication and information from the travel agencies they had booked with. According to some, the agencies didn’t even inform them of the need to evacuate. These include Barbora, who said she had to be evacuated in her swimwear because her travel agency hadn’t told her anything in advance.

Evacuation of tourists on the island of Rhodes,  Greece | Photo: ČTK/AP/Uncredited

“The travel agency rep finally got in touch with me sometime in the night after I had repeatedly tried calling and writing to her. I’d also called the main office and they said they would get in touch, but they didn’t. They said they would give us more information between 5 and 6, but nothing came.”

Travel agencies have responded to the complaints by saying that they have been working non-stop without sleep since the evacuations started, and have been trying to communicate with their customers. However, this has been complicated by power outages, a lack of signal, and out-of-date contact information.

After being evacuated from hotels, the tourists were, according to some testimonies, put up in inadequate emergency accommodation. Eliška told Czech Radio that after the evacuation she had to sleep with other people in the basement of a hotel without enough food.

Evacuation of tourists on the island of Rhodes,  Greece | Photo: Argyris Mantikos,  ČTK/AP

“The room wasn’t air-conditioned. Babies and children were crying. They gave us water but no food. Just now we finally got a piece of toast – and we paid for an all-inclusive holiday.”

However, Martin Smolek from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that the situation is gradually stabilising and travel agencies have already found replacement hotels for some of the tourists. Dozens of Czechs are still waiting for their return flight.

Evacuated people wait to board buses on the island of Rhodes,  Greece,  Sunday,  July 23,  2023. | Photo: Argyris Mantikos,  ČTK/AP

Meanwhile, many are still flying to the island, despite the fires still not being under control. Another 1,200 Czechs are heading to the so far unaffected parts of Rhodes in the north of the island on Monday alone, like this young couple waiting in Prague airport for their flight to the Greek island.

“We are flying to the north of the island, in the city, so we are not worried. We think it will be fine. We’ll see, but we won’t let it ruin the holiday.”

However, even the north of the island is feeling the effects of the fires. There have been reports of several-hour-long power cuts, which means air conditioning stops working, and the Foreign Ministry says the whole island is at risk of the fires spreading. The ministry is advising people not to travel to areas affected by the fire or even those where the fire could spread in the near future, and is considering flight restrictions.

Tourists inside a stadium after their evacuation during a forest fire on the island of Rhodes,  Greece,  Sunday,  July 23,  2023. | Photo: Argyris Mantikos,  ČTK/AP
Authors: Anna Fodor , Kateřina Bečková , Daniela Tollingerová
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