LESS than a four-hour flight from the Gulf, Cyprus – the ‘Island of Aphrodite’ – is a destination growing in popularity with travellers from the Middle East, who find its cuisine, culture and climate welcoming and sufficiently familiar to be comfortable, yet an interesting change.
For those travelling from the GCC, Cyprus is a practical destination for a short break, a great stopover point for journeys to the UK, other parts of Europe, or the US, and a destination in its own right for longer holidays.
Year-round sunshine and the relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle are just two of the attractions that draw in nearly three million visitors a year. However, modern-day Cyprus is moving away from its dependence on agriculture and tourism and now over 60 per cent of its economy is based on the provision of professional services, as the country develops a reputation for business excellence.
Like most other countries, Cyprus suffered from a drop in visitors with the global economic downturn and the after effects of the September 2001 attacks. Its position in the Eastern Mediterranean also frightened off travellers in the run-up to, and for the duration of, the war on Iraq. But by May this year, there were signs of an increase in bookings from major travel agents and tour operators, and industry representatives were optimistic.
According to figures from the Cyprus Tourism Organisation (CTO), which is now establishing its office in Dubai, the Republic of Cyprus received 2,303,246 visitors in 2003 of whom 32,260 were from the Arab world, with 18,452 of those arriving from the GCC. In fact, the majority of the visitors to Cyprus are from Europe, a whopping 1,347,037 being from the UK. Over 100,000 people from each of Germany and Greece visited Cyprus in 2003, occupying second and fourth places, respectively, on the list of visitors, while the Russian Federation and former Soviet states together filled third place with 114,792 visitors.
It may be small country, but Cyprus has a wealth of experience in developing its tourism industry and the CTO vets and licences hotels, serviced apartments, holiday flats and villas, restaurants and tavernas, ensuring high standards are maintained and prices reflect the facilities on offer. About the same size in terms of population as Qatar, the Republic of Cyprus offered an amazing 951hotels, apartment blocks and holiday units, with 95,185 beds, as of December 31 last year, and additional units, with another 3,728 beds, were nearing completion.
Cyprus has a history dating back thousands of years and has numerous important archaeological sites, as well as modern hotels and shopping facilities, wonderful scenery and a throbbing nightlife. (In legend, it is also the birthplace of the Greek deity Aphrodite, which gives the island its colloquial name.)
The division of the island in 1974, following what the UN, and the international community, refers to as the Turkish invasion, and Turkey calls a justified military response, resulted in a number of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots being separated from their property and land. While the CTO Hotel Guide has an appendix listing hotels in the beautiful northern port city of Kyrenia and in Ammochostos (Famagusta) in the south east, it points out that those areas are both under Turkish occupation, and that the establishments listed actually belong to Greek Cypriots who are denied access to their own property.
But don’t be put off visiting the island because of the politics. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots love their island, and when it comes to nationality, they will tell you simply “We are Cypriots”. They all desperately want reunification, whatever the agenda-toting politicians may claim, and neither community wants the other excluded from economic development. There are numerous bi-communal projects, but both Turkish and Greek Cypriots are united in their resentment of the number of settlers sent to the island from the Turkish mainland.
Although the division of the island has led to uneven economic development, things are changing, and the Greek Cypriots are the first to endorse the development of trade across the border (referred to as the ‘Green Line’), together with any other moves that help the Turkish Cypriots develop their economy and their infrastructure.
From the tourism point of view, the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus, in the southern two-thirds of the island, has a well-developed transportation system, with an excellent network of buses, service taxis and taxis. The island is small and it’s easy to travel from one end to the other and to explore the villages in between. You can book a seat in a service taxi that will pick-up you and other passengers at pre-determined places and times on the route, for about one tenth of the cost of an ordinary taxi and, in some cases, the service taxis can take you into the villages too. Car hire is easy to arrange and relatively inexpensive. A new motorway system links the main towns of Paphos, Limassol, Larnaca and Ayia Napa (from west to east along the south coast) with the capital, Nicosia, in the centre of the island.
The occupied north of the island – the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) -– is also trying to break into the tourism market. However, despite having some of the island’s most beautiful countryside, the north has lacked major infrastructural development over the past 30 years. In addition, its airport and ports are internationally regarded as ‘illegal’ points of entry to the island. Visitors have to go through Turkey to reach the island and they are not permitted to cross into the south of the island. Visitors to the south, however, can take advantage of the relaxation in rules introduced last year to cross over into, and explore, the north. In fact taking a day-trip (or more) across into the north is becoming a popular addition to holidays for many visiting the Republic.
Sotos Zackheos, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Afffairs, has a huge painting on the wall of his office by a renowned Turkish Cypriot artist. The island, he says, yearns for reunification; in the meantime, the south has worked hard to meet EU legal requirements and, indeed, some of that clarification is ongoing. While the Republic has focused on relations with the EU, the island is, he says, well-placed geographically and culturally to act as an intermediary between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It welcomes visitors from all parts of the world, and sees a relaxation of movement across the Green Line as positive, so long as there is no contravention of EU rules.
Sotiris Sotirou, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism and Phryne Michael, director-general of the CTO, say there is enough potential for both parts of the island to develop their tourism potential, noting that the TRNC has very limited facilities at present compared to the Republic. “We welcome anything which enables the Turkish Cypriots to develop their economy,” says Sotirou. “We don’t see ourselves as in competition; the market is there for us both to develop.” But since the TRNC does not have international recognition, he advises visitors going there to check on the validity of their travel insurance and points out that the north has no internationally recognised body to handle complaints. Michael believes Cyprus offers a quality destination that still represents good value for money, even though “there are other countries that represent cheaper destinations in the region, such as Egypt, Turkey and Syria.” The new Dubai CTO ofice will, she says, start promoting the island through a series of road shows around the Gulf, beginning later this year.
The Republic of Cyprus has the advantage of offering a ‘tried-and-tested’ product, with many visitors returning time and time again. It has learned how to develop niche markets, with eco-tourism programmes that offer a wide rage of ‘specialist’ holidays that include special maps for ramblers, cyclists and nature lovers. The island’s extensive history, culture and art are covered by other suggested tour-routes that take in some of the scores of museums, art galleries and archaeological sites. Facilities have been developed in, or near, some of the villages to give a rural holiday experience, and individual property owners also list a variety of urban and rural property with the CTO, for holiday rental.
Getting to Cyprus
Cyprus Airways, Emirates, and Gulf Air all fly to Larnaca from the Gulf. Charter flights from the UK, and other parts of Europe, also fly in to Paphos in the south west. In fact, the Republic of Cyprus is served by around 33 scheduled airlines and 67 charter operators. Its accession to the EU on May 1, and subsequent deregulation has also had the effect of reducing airfares from the island.
One result of EU membership is that non-EU citizens need a visa to visit the island. The Republic of Cyprus now has an embassy in Qatar that can issue visas to approved applicants of any nationality. It serves the whole of the GCC, and those who live more than 300km away can apply by sending their passports, and supporting documents, by registered post. Those applying in person will receive their visa on the same day.
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