UK airlines are scrambling evacuation flights to the wildfire-ravaged islands of Rhodes and Corfu where up to 10,000 British tourists are stranded in a “living nightmare” as a fresh red alert is issued for Crete.
The two biggest holiday firms Tui and Jet2 have axed all flights to the island in the coming days after holidaymakers were forced to flee their hotels having to sleep on floors in schools, airports and sports centers – but other firms, including Ryanair, Thomas Cook and easyJet continue to fly tourists who want to travel to Rhodes.
The popular destination of Crete was also placed under an “extreme” fire warning on Monday, with Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis telling parliament it must “be on constant alert” in the weeks ahead. He declared his country to be “at war” with the blazes and warned of three more “difficult days” before the extreme heat eases.
“The climate crisis is already here, it will manifest itself everywhere in the Mediterranean with greater disasters,” Mr Mitsotakis said, just a week after multiple infernos ignited near Athens, destroying homes and businesses, and days after temperatures hit 45C.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak urged holidaymakers to stay in touch with tour operators but the Foreign Office has so far not discouraged Britons from traveling to Greece, and some 26 flights took off from UK airports to Rhodes on Monday.
Urging the UK government to “get a grip”, Lib Dem MP Layla Moran hit out Tory ministers’ “inaction” as she warned that the current advice was leaving families unable to claim on their insurance, meaning they were forced to “[pay] the penalty for deciding not to fly out” to Rhodes.
More than 2,000 holidaymakers have so far been repatriated in what was described as the largest evacuation in Greek history, with more flights due on Tuesday as Rhodes’ deputy mayor warned the fires remained “out of control” seven days after flaring into life.
Helen Tonks, a mother of three from Cheshire, accuses travel firm Tui of flying her into a “living nightmare” on Saturday night, as she told The Sun of landing in Rhodes only to be informed that her hotel had already burned down. The firm has now canceled all flights to the island until Saturday.
Claire Jones, a 36-year-old from Leicestershire on a honeymoon with her new husband Paul, was evacuated by coach over the weekend in a “traumatic” journey as holidaymakers fled their hotels on foot carrying babies and small children, with some reporting that they had walked for 10 miles in searing heat.
Upgrading the fire risk in Crete to the highest warning level on Monday, Greek authorities also put swathes of the country under notice of a “very high fire risk”, including Athens, the Peloponnese, Karpathos, Kalymnos and Kos.
While authorities have suggested the Corfu blazes may be a result of arson, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King warned on Monday that the millions of British tourists planning Mediterranean holidays this summer should take Greece as “a big, big warning”.
Lamenting that “many people will die from heat stress” due to the relentless heatwaves scorching southern Europe, Sir David said he had “no doubt” that the extreme temperatures are due to melting ice in the Arctic caused by human-led climate breakdown.
The temperatures in Rhodes were forecast to climb as high as 40C by Wednesday, as Greece faces its longest heatwave on record. The EU’s civil protection agency has deployed some 450 firefighters and seven planes from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Italy, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
But the travel industry appeared to be preparing the ground for a restart in tourism in some of the unaffected areas.
A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said: “We understand that some of the resorts have had their evacuation orders removed by the Greek authorities and people have been advised that they can return to the resorts of Lindos, Pefkos and Kalathos.
“Travel companies will be liaising with their accommodation providers to ensure that they are ready to receive customers and customers will be notified accordingly.”
Chris Elworthy, a 42-year-old farmer from Faversham in Kent, said he had left £10,000 out of pocket after his easyJet flights to reach a private villa in Pefkos with his wife and two children were cancelled.
“We are now £10,000 out of pocket; easyJet is not helping at all with a flight, despite having promised on Twitter that they would provide a voucher or another flight … 24 hours later they have done nothing,” he said.
“The villa is refusing to refund us, and the holiday insurance is saying that we’re not covered because we didn’t have the additional natural disaster cover on top of the ordinary cover.”
Dan Jones, a sports teacher from Torquay, had to climb onto a fishing trawler with his sons to escape the raging fires on Saturday night, describing it as “the scariest moment” in his life and adding: “What brave boys.”
Estimating that between 7,000 and 10,000 British tourists were on Rhodes for the peak holiday season, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell told LBC that reports of holiday company reps seeming “to have gone missing” was “a deplorable state of affairs” which the government would investigate.
But he defended the lack of advice against traveling to Rhodes, saying the fact “that only 10 per cent of the island is affected by these fires” meant tour operators were “best placed to give guidance on whether or not a family or individual’s holidays are going to be ruined by these events”.
Downing Street defended not discouraging people from traveling to Rhodes, despite sending a team to help holidaymakers affected by the fires.
The PM’s official spokesperson said: “The current situation is impacting on a limited area in Rhodes and whilst it’s right to keep it under review and it’s possible that the advice may change we do not want to act out of proportion to the situation on the ground.”
There are “not currently” plans to get the RAF to help people to leave, he added.