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Greece holiday chaos as Foreign Office doesn't alter travel advice - as Rhodes wildfire inferno visible from space
24 July 2023, 13:51 | Updated: 24 July 2023, 14:41
The ‘biggest evacuation’ effort in Greece’s history was under way today as wildfires ravaged the island of Rhodes and 2,500 people fled Corfu.
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Downing Street has been forced to defend not discouraging Brits from travelling to the country.
The Foreign Office has stopped short of warning against travelling to Rhodes or Corfu at this time, making it harder for anyone seeking compensation.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said today: “Our advice is focused on the safety of British nationals and enabling people to make an informed decision about the situation on the ground.
“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.”
Satellite imagery issued today by Copernicus EU - the Earth monitoring service from the European Union Space Programme, shows the devastation caused by the fires on Rhodes.
A swathe of the centre of the island is visibly charred and blackened, with flames also picked up on the satellite photos.
A huge column of smoke spreads hundreds of kilometres to the island’s south.
Short notice flights to Rhodes are still available and most holiday firms will continue to fly there until the airport is closed.
Many Brits have described landing on the island and being taken straight to a local school or theatre instead of their hotel accommodation.
The wildfires in #Ροδος🇬🇷 are among hundreds to have broken out across #Greece recently— Copernicus EU (@CopernicusEU) July 24, 2023
The country has been enduring scorching temperatures, making this July its hottest in 50 years
Yesterday, #Copernicus #Sentinel3🇪🇺🛰️captured this image of the smoke plume drifting south pic.twitter.com/P2mKNLWMGs
A father of two from Kent has said he is £10,000 out of pocket after his family holiday to Greece was ruined by the ongoing wildfires.
Chris Elworthy, 42, a farmer from Faversham, was due to fly with easyJet to Rhodes with his wife Emma, 43, and two children, Thomas, 13, and Charlotte, 11, on Saturday, for a holiday at a private villa in Pefkos - before both bookings were cancelled.
The former Royal Engineers officer said easyJet was "not helping at all" with a voucher or another flight and the villa is "refusing" to provide a refund.
"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."
"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."
EasyJet has been contacted for comment.
Another holidaymaker said she flew into a ‘living nightmare’ on Saturday to discover her hotel had been closed by the fire.
Helen Tonks, from Cheshire, said: “We landed and were told, "Sorry, you can't go to your hotel - it's burned down". We had no idea the fires were this bad or as close to the hotels as they were. Tui said nothing, not even when our flight was delayed. Even the captain's chat on the plane was upbeat. We would never have come if we had known”.
Up to 10,000 Britons are estimated to be on Rhodes, with repatriation flights to rescue holidaymakers now landing back in the UK.
Eleven more rescue flights will arrive back in the UK by midnight tonight, although UK airlines are continuing to sell flights for immediate departure.
Tui has three flights today, easyJet four flights, Jet2 has two flights and BA and Ryanair have one each.
Thomas Cook says most of its customers booked to travel on Monday are travelling as normal.
Ryanair says operations to and from Rhodes are normal and that usual conditions apply.
Jet2 and Tui are dispatching aircraft with no passengers from UK airports to Rhodes to pick up holidaymakers. Both have dispatched teams to help customers.
Rhodes airport is on the northwestern shore of the island, close to the capital, Rhodes Town. With no imminent danger in that area, airlines are entitled to operate a “business as usual” policy.
The FCDO has also sent a Rapid Deployment Team to Rhodes to support British nationals.
Holidaymakers whose trips are cut short due to the fires are due a partial refund under Package Travel Regulations, however it may not be was much as you expect as firms are entitled to deduct the cost of flights from the remaining value of the trip.
If a holidaymaker personally decides to leave early then no compensation is due. Travel insurance may be able to help cover some additional costs.
Evacuations have begun and flights rescuing British holidaymakers in Rhodes have begun arriving in the UK. But tourists have reported chaos on the beaches as people waited to be evacuated from the islands by sea.
Amy Leyden, a British tourist, said she didn't think she, her partner and two-year-old child were going to survive their ordeal in Rhodes.
They were rescued from their hotel by police before it collapsed. "We just had to keep running and then the fire was getting closer and it was getting harder to breathe," she said.
They were picked up by a local man, who drove them to the beach, where they found an "awful" sight, she told Sky News.
"The army was waiting but everyone was fighting to get onto the boats, there were children falling in the water." They have since been evacuated.
Andrew Mitchell: 'That is a deplorable state of affairs...'
Amid the chaos, Brits have been sleeping on beaches and in temporary accommodation like schools, sports stadiums and the airport.
There have been complaints that they have been abandoned by travel reps, with nowhere to go and without transportation.
Some operators failed to contact British families who were left walking up to 12 hours in heat of almost 40C on Rhodes.
Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "That is a deplorable state of affairs.
"We will be investigating all of that. I think it's important to make the point that virtually all the tour operators and holiday companies have sprung into action in the proper way and I hope that will continue."
He said that only about 10% of the island was affected by the blaze.
Holiday operator Jet2 said three repatriation flights to return hundreds of holidaymakers from Rhodes are planned on Monday evening. The company said a flight, carrying 95 people, landed at Leeds Bradford late on Sunday evening.
In addition to over 50 scheduled flights, one flight will depart for Manchester, another for Leeds Bradford and a third for Birmingham later on Monday.
A spokesperson said: "We understand how difficult this experience has been for many, and our entire focus is on looking after our customers. We have a significantly expanded presence in Rhodes, with a huge team of experienced colleagues providing all the support we can for our customers, whether that is in affected areas or at Rhodes Airport.
"We have also put on three repatriation flights to bring our customers home, which is on top of our scheduled programme of flights that will continue to operate from Rhodes to the UK this week. We are continuing to make decisions in the best interests of our customers, and we are keeping everything under constant review."
Fellow tour operator Tui has said holidaymakers have returned to the UK from Rhodes on "three dedicated flights".
It said in a statement: "We're now working hard to get everybody home safely, with our first passengers returning to the UK on three dedicated flights overnight and plans in place to get everyone affected back as soon as possible.
"We appreciate how distressing and difficult it's been for those who have been evacuated and ask that they continue to follow the advice of the local authorities and keep in touch with the Tui reps who are present in all evacuation centres. Our teams will be contacting customers with any updates as soon as they can.
"We have cancelled all outbound flights to Rhodes up to and including Tuesday, and passengers due to travel on these flights will receive full refunds.
"Passengers due to travel on Wednesday will be offered a fee-free amend to another holiday or the option to cancel for a full refund.
"We are still operating flights to bring those customers currently on holiday elsewhere in Rhodes home as planned.
"The safety and wellbeing of our customers and teams remains our top priority."
Airline Easyjet is also laying on at least three repatriation flights on Monday and Tuesday, as well as regular scheduled trips to the UK.
Rishi Sunak urged people to try to stay in touch with their holiday operator.
The PM said: "My paramount priority is the safety of British nationals, that's why the Deputy Prime Minister chaired a Cobra meeting yesterday - he's been monitoring the situation closely.
"The most important thing is people remain in touch with their tour operators, there are lots of flights going back and forth to be able to bring people home, and if people are in touch with their tour operators they will get the information that they need."
Greece said its evacuation mission is the largest in its history.
Blazes have already seen hundreds evacuated in the Athens area, where fires are still raging to the west of the capital, and on Evia and Corfu.
Holidaymakers are taken away on boats and over land and put into temporary accommodation elsewhere, some without food or water.
In total, about 30,000 people have been moved in an operation supported by the Greek army.
One holidaymaker described the horror of fleeing the fires to LBC.
Narrissa Sketchley said she had to flee in Rhodes after she saw white ash drop from the sky on Thursday evening, then thick black clouds formed as helicopters came to pour water over the blaze.
The hotel staff told her to stay put until the Greek government texted them.
"There was no one there to tell us or advise us," she said.
She told Nick "next thing we know there is someone there shouting 'go, go, go' and we ran out of the hotel door and just to the left of us there were red hot flames".
Narrissa said she was told to take her family and flee to the beach.
"We got to the first beach and sat on sunbeds, but there were thick black clouds and ash coming down.
"As soon as we sat on the sunbed we were told not to and told 'run, run, run," Narissa said.
She had to run over "four or five beaches" but with little direction from officials.