Cyprus struggles with lack of UK tourists after years of record growth

In the cavernous hall that hosts the humungous breakfast buffet at Limassol’s Four Seasons, Pam Vernon and Sue Sampson cut solitary figures. At this time of year, the hotel would usually be bursting at the seams with British holidaymakers. Instead, the restaurant, like the curvaceous, palm-fringed pool outside, is full of Russians. Vernon, a regular visitor for the past 25 years, can’t recall anything like it.

“Normally there’d be hundreds of us here,” she said, as staff intermittently greeted the Britons with good-humoured banter and evident delight. “At this time of year there are always lots of families here. Me and John [her husband] would never miss May, or early June, in Cyprus. It’s like coming home.”

In the midst of a pandemic that has left even the most raucous of Limassol bars unseasonably quiet, the Vernons took a punt, deciding with their friends, Sue and Chris Sampson, to holiday on the Mediterranean island despite the prospect of “endless tests” and quarantine back home. A former GP, Chris had spent weeks prior to arrival studying the amber-listed country’s handling of Covid-19.

“We’re banking on the island going green,” said John, a retired company director, expressing a hope that would be dashed days later by the British government. “In our view it’s safer here in terms of infection rates than in the UK.”

It’s not just the Four Seasons that has been having an oddly un-British spring. The growing number of luxury hotels along Limassol’s seafront – an up-and-coming destination embraced by pensioners and young British professionals alike – also report a clientele that is primarily Russian. In contrast to London, Moscow does not require that travellers self-isolate when they return from abroad, although they’re subject to coronavirus tests both on arrival and five days later.

More than Greece to its west, Turkey to its north or any other country in the near east, the ex-crown colony depends on tourists from the UK, its main market.

In 2019, when an unprecedented 4 million people visited the war-partitioned island’s Greek-run south, a record 1.4 million of them were Britons, with younger holidaymakers arriving to enjoy hotspots such as Ayia Napa, and the older crowd heading to the more sedate resort of Paphos in the west.

Until last year, Nick Aristou, the Four Seasons’ veteran executive director, thought he had seen it all. “Before Covid, we had had three consecutive record years,” said the British-born Cypriot, who worked with the Forte group before moving into the hotel business in Cyprus in the early 1990s.

“Repeatedly, guests have been forced to reschedule. But it’s clear there’s a lot of frustrated demand. People just want to get away. Our booking volumes from August to October at present are higher than they were in 2019.”

Officials at Nicosia’s deputy ministry of tourism say prior to the pandemic the priority had been upgrading the tourism product, away from the “sun, sea and sand” model and extending the season to include “shoulder months” at either end.

“Now, the focus is on facilitating travel from our source markets,” said Christina Charalambous from her desk at the ministry. “It’s all about getting people here and convincing governments to allow travel to Cyprus.”

With one in 10 Greek Cypriots employed in tourism, a growing sense of urgency underpins the desire to put the industry back on track.

At about 85% in lost income last year, losses were “tragic” said Savvas Perdios, the deputy tourism minister. Salvaging a sector that also provides 13% of direct revenues for the republic’s economy – 20% if indirect revenues are also taken into account – has become the name of the game.

As with officials in Athens and beyond, Perdios does not hide his disappointment with the latest travel advice from England. Ahead of the UK government shocking the travel industry and tourist-reliant countries with its refusal to add any new destinations to its quarantine-free travel list, Perdios had flown to the British capital to press the island’s case.

“We feel that we deserve the green category as soon as possible,” he told the Guardian in a telephone interview. “Our positivity rate but also our R number is lower than in the UK itself, so we have better statistics than the UK and we have the best statistics in the Mediterranean for variants,” he said, extolling a vaccination drive that is among the best in Europe.

“If we’re going to be sat here having these great stats but not being recognised for all the work we have done, it’s just going to lead to disappointment.”

Like Greece, Cyprus has accused Boris Johnson’s government of being shortsighted. Tourism required foresight and planning, said Perdios, not an ever-changing horizon of last-minute statements.

“The reality is that as long as this instability continues with regard to categorisation, people don’t know what to book. At the very least I think it would not be a bad idea if an expected date was given.”

Highlighting the risk of price increases with last-minute bookings, he added: “More of an effort needs to be made to show people what might be possible going forward … It’s as if we have told everybody ‘stop booking, stop looking, stop dreaming’ and just wait for the country to turn green. So what are people supposed to do, book at the last minute?”

Arrive in Cyprus and it is the sight of empty sunloungers stacked along the Larnaca coast that first strikes visitors. Whether you believe in mass tourism or not, it’s an unsettling view that speaks of a crisis within a crisis for destinations that have banked more than perhaps was ever wise on luring holidaymakers to their shores.

Back at the Four Seasons, the Vernons and the Sampsons are still glad that they made the trip, despite the uncertainty that has come with flights being cancelled and the inevitable Covid tests that lie ahead. It’s been a pleasant holiday replete with days on the golf course and enjoying cabanas by the sea.

“The UK government didn’t say ‘don’t go’, so we decided to follow its advice and use our own judgment,” says John over a cocktail at the hotel’s terrace bar. “That judgment was based on the sensible and qualified advice of Chris, a doctor who follows the data every day. For sure, we’ll all be back.”

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