A tale of two islands

The cool Mediterranean waters of Cyprus beckons

ANY way you choose to look at it, May 2004 marked a milestone in the history of the European Union (EU).

It was the month when the Union made its biggest-ever enlargement by inducting ten new countries – Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – taking its total strength to 25.
One would have imagined this would be greeted with cheers all the way. But the truth is that the feeling is somewhat mixed in countries like Malta and Cyprus. Especially as the new Member States take their first unsure steps as part of this big family pre-occupied by the question of how the expansion will impact their economies and how the larger EU will deal with issues like accession workers seeking employment.
In practical terms, the European Union is about the freedom to travel, to work and to do business in the biggest single market in the world, a community of around 450 million citizens. More to the point, it is about freeing people and businesses from the unnecessary rules and regulations that restrict free trade and movement among states.
But all that seems straight and simple at first glance may get complicated as the construction of the Union grows and its methods become more cumbersome. After all, getting 25 members to toe the same line – or, at the very least, reach a compromise – may not be as easy as it seems, especially as national interests often tends to take precedence.
However, having said that, the new Member States could well breathe fresh life into the Union and stimulate growth. Take, for instance, the findings of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), building on its exclusive Tourism Satellite Accounting research produced by Oxford Economic Forecasting, that was revealed at the Fourth Global Travel & Tourism Summit held in Doha last month. It suggested that the ten accession countries combined stand to generate an additional $54.6 billion of travel and tourism GDP and three million jobs by achieving average EU results.
This new research should put to rest some of the concerns of the new Member States as it suggests that travel and tourism can make a significant contribution to creating three million jobs. Step further, it adds that the general economic growth will drive these economies to produce an ever greater return from travel and tourism.
And, certainly, for Mediterranean islands like Cyprus and Malta, travel and tourism is a big earner. Besides being a favourite destination for tourists from Britain they are becoming increasingly popular with other distant and neighbouring countries.
Steeped in history, picture perfect Malta, for its part, banks on 7,000 years of history to attract tourists and Hollywood dream merchants. From Gladiator to Julius Caesar to Helen of Troy to The Count of Monte Cristo, the island has played the backdrop to a host of period flicks – with Troy being the latest in the long list. As Ted Kurdlya, producer of Helen of Troy, correctly put it: “Malta is able to offer different locations, which could go 2,000 years back in time, and could be reached in the space of 30 minutes.”
Clearly, Malta’s rich history, culture and heritage – for the record, it has the highest number of churches per sq km in the world (365 in all) – are a huge draw. Whether it’s 15th-century cannons or 16th-century cathedrals and palace or, for that matter, prehistoric temples that you are looking for, there is a good chance that you will stumble on one in Malta. What’s more, you can even retrace the footsteps of St Paul or see where the Knights of St John defended Christendom. In short, from temple builders, seafaring Phoenicians and the traveller Apostle Paul, to the Knights of St John, Napoleon and British royalty, all have set foot here leaving their imprint for generations to discover.
But that’s not all. The Maltese islands also offer spectacular scenery and pleasant weather – the sun shines for an average of 8.35 hours a day here – which play no small part in attracting in making it one of the top tourist destinations.
Closer home, Cyprus, too, boasts of rich history and culture – suffice to say that UNESCO has included nine of the island’s Byzantine mountain churches and the entire town of Kato Pafos, Palaepafos and Choirokoitia in its World Cultural Heritage List –good Mediterranean weather, a friendly people and more.
What’s more, you can choose to be enveloped by pine-clad mountains blowing cool air in your face (the island has an impressive mountain range that stretches across the centre of Cyprus and reaches up to 1.952 metres at Chionistra) or have miles of golden beaches kissing your feet. Or, for that matter, you could decide to laze in timeless villages and unspoilt countryside or simply let your hair down, put on your dancing shoes and head to downtown Limassol.
But whatever it is that you decide to do, one thing is for sure: in Cyprus, you will be spoilt for choice.
But Cypriots are nothing if not enterprising and now they are using sports to promote tourism. Take the recently-concluded 2004 Cyprus Rally, the most challenging event on the FIA World Rally Championship calendar, attracted around 20,000 visitors to the country. The huge-successful sports event not only gave a boost to the tourism industry but also focussed world media attention on the island as top international drivers burnt their tyres in the lush countryside. And now, as the centre for pre-training camps for the Olympic Games – at least 70 per cent of the British team will be based here, along with Ireland, Sweden and Russia – it will be right back in the news.
Need we say, this would not have happened quite as easily without the EU membership. Now, more than ever, tiny Mediterranean islands like Malta and Cyprus have a sporting chance to move beyond destination tourism and make their mark in the international arena.