Trickle of British tourists dashes Cyprus tourism hopes
An Aegean Air Airbus A320 aircraft is on its descent approach towards Cyprus' Larnaca International Airport as it flies over beachgoers at a nearby beach along the Mediterranean. AFP
The holiday island of Cyprus had hoped British tourists would give a badly-needed boost to its pandemic-hit tourism sector, but only a trickle of sun-seekers have arrived.
"2020 is a lost season," said beach bar manager Giannis Aggelopoulos in the resort town of Larnaca, which is usually busy with Brits enjoying sandy beaches but now largely empty of foreign tourists.
In a normal year, UK citizens make up the largest group of visitors to the former British colony in the eastern Mediterranean, where restaurants offer bacon and eggs for breakfast, pints of ale and televised Premier League games.
"It's a home away from home," said one visitor, Paul, who arrived Tuesday on an under-booked Wizz Air flight from London with his partner Nastasha and their young son. "We are here to help a bit," he said. "We like to go to the restaurants, to the bars, to do some shopping. We're going to spend some money."
But for Cyprus' hard-hit tourism sector it's all too little too late. Most arrivals from Britain since Cyprus eased bilateral restrictions last Saturday have been individual travellers and dual nationals, not the usual big tour groups.
Major package deal operators have delivered very few of the groups that have in the past packed out seaside resorts from Paphos in the west to Ayia Napa in the east. Tourism has all but collapsed in Cyprus, where the sector earned 2.68 billion euros last year -- over 12 percent of gross domestic product, according to official statistics.
As Cyprus shuttered its borders for several months because of COVID-19, foreign tourist arrivals fell by 84 percent in the first half of the year to just over 255,000.
Brits normally account for 40 percent of arrivals, or 1.2 million people -- more than Cyprus' entire population -- said Philokypros Roussounides, head of the Cyprus Hotel Association. But, even though they are allowed back now, many have been put off by strict health regulations and the need for COVID-19 testing.
Cyprus on August 1 upgraded Britain to "Category B" from "C," meaning UK visitors no longer have to quarantine on arrival. But they must still present a negative test that is no older than 72 hours, unlike visitors from "A" countries, which are deemed by Cypriot authorities to be the safest. "The tour operators informed us last week that they will not put Cyprus back (into their catalogues) unless something changes to bring the UK into the A-list," said Polyviou.
British low-cost carrier Jet2 announced late last month it was suspending its "flights and holiday programme" to Cyprus until after August 16, citing "prohibitive entry restrictions". Roussounides -- who said barely 20 percent of hotels are open -- predicted that "the only British tourists that will come to the island will be individuals", rather than tour groups.
Marios Polyviou, head of the Sunnyseeker Hotels group, said for now only six of the chain's eight hotels on the island are open. "We have no indication that this is going to get better," she said.
'Why take the risk?'
A recent rise of daily coronavirus infections on Cyprus has alarmed authorities and raised public concerns about the reopening to foreign visitors. At the Ciao Stelio Deluxe Hotel near the Larnaca seafront, masks, gloves and gel are ready for guests on entry. Plexiglass panels protect hotel employees, and markers on the ground indicate physical distancing measures.
Guests from "B" countries must show their negative coronavirus test in order to access their rooms, a hotel employee said. British guests usually account for a quarter of the hotel's visitors, the employee said.
Polyviou from Sunnyseeker Hotels group said the company had invested heavily in anti-coronavirus measures, but that occupancy rates were "very low".
Looking to the future, Polyviou holds a pragmatic view. "We have to learn to live with the virus, to be more responsible... We have to train ourselves until a reliable vaccine comes to the market," Polyviou said. "We cannot close the borders forever."
Aggelopoulos, the manager of the Larnaca beach bar, said he expected losses of 40 percent this year compared to 2019. But he said a delay to mass tourist arrivals was not necessarily a bad thing. The return of British tourists, and foreign visitors in general, he argued was "a very big risk for the Cyprus people, and for what?
"Two or three months of tourists? It's not worth it. Why take such big a risk now in the middle of the summer?"