Cyprus sets stage for tourism recovery as airports reopen

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Tourist numbers to Cyprus are expected to fall by up to 70 percent this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (AFP)
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A mask-clad passenger queues at Larnaca International Airport. (AFP)
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Updated 07 June 2020

Cyprus sets stage for tourism recovery as airports reopen

  • Mediterranean holiday island tempts visitors with bold hospitality package that includes medical care

NICOSIA: Cyprus will reopen for international tourism on Tuesday, with airports welcoming visitors after an almost three-month shutdown, and a bold plan to cover health-care costs for visitors.

But with arrivals expected to be down by 70 percent this year due to the chaos brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a leap of faith for the small Mediterranean holiday island.

“Nobody here is expecting to make any money this year,” Deputy Tourism Minister Savvas Perdios said. “We are setting the stage for the beginning of our recovery in 2021.”

The divided island’s tourism sector normally accounts for around 15 percent of gross domestic product, but has dried up in past months amid global measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Cyprus saw a record 3.97 million arrivals in 2019, with more than half its market made up of British and Russian visitors.

But even if the island’s airports in Larnaca and Paphos open up to arrivals on Tuesday, with the first flight due to arrive from Athens around noon, neither Britain or Russia are among the 19 countries allowed to land there.

The list of permitted countries, which also include Bulgaria, Germany and Malta, have been chosen based on epidemiological data and split into two categories.

Initially all travellers will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test undertaken within 72 hours of travel, but from June 20, only those arriving from six countries in the second category, such as Poland and Romania, will need to do so.

The government says the lists will be revised weekly and more countries can be added.

Cyprus will also cover accommodation, dining and medical care for any tourists who fall ill with the COVID-19 illness during their stay, as well as accommodation and meals for their families and close contacts.

“What we offer and what we sell is not the sun and the sea, it’s hospitality, and this is an extension of our hospitality,” Perdios said.

The government has designated a 100-bed COVID-19 hospital for tourists that Perdios said would be located in the Larnaca region, while 112 ICU units have been allocated for visitors.

Perdios said several four-star hotels would provide 500 quarantine rooms for close contacts of those who fall ill.

A raft of other health measures, including disinfection protocols and temperature checks at border controls, aim to protect travellers and locals alike.

“We’ve gone to big lengths to think ahead of things that could go wrong and try to devise plan Bs and Cs”, Perdios said.

The Republic of Cyprus, in the south of the island, has registered 960 novel coronavirus cases and 17 deaths.

Perdios expressed hope that British tourists could be welcomed “sometime after mid-July”, with Russia “slightly later, maybe by a couple of weeks.”

A recently announced deal with Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air to open a base in Cyprus from July was also an important step towards expanding and diversifying the island’s tourist markets, he said.

While no date has been set to allow international tourists to visit the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, only recognised by Ankara, the health-care commitment would still apply to those visiting the north during their stay once the crossings are reopened.

“I am very confident that not only will we be able to continue providing our citizens with protection, but also caring for everybody who comes to the island on holiday”, he said.

“If we are coming out with a scheme like this, it’s because we can afford it, but most importantly, because we feel that it’s the right thing to do.”


Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

Updated 16 July 2020

Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

  • The circumstances of the hijack are still unclear and the boat has been tracked to Iranian waters

DUBAI: An oil tanker sought by the US over allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked on July 5 off the coast of the UAE, a seafarers organization said Wednesday.

Satellite photos showed the vessel in Iranian waters on Tuesday and two of its sailors remained in the Iranian capital.

It wasn’t immediately clear what happened aboard the Dominica-flagged MT Gulf Sky, though its reported hijacking comes after months of tensions between Iran and the US

David Hammond, the CEO of the United Kingdom-based group Human Rights at Sea, said he took a witness statement from the captain of the MT Gulf Sky, confirming the ship had been hijacked.

Hammond said that 26 of the Indian sailors on board had made it back to India, while two remained in Tehran, without elaborating.

“We are delighted to hear that the crew are safe and well, which has been our fundamental concern from the outset,” Hammond told The Associated Press.

Hammond said that he had no other details about the vessel.

TankerTrackers.com, a website tracking the oil trade at sea, said it saw the vessel in satellite photos on Tuesday in Iranian waters off Hormuz Island. 

Hormuz Island, near the port city of Bandar Abbas, is some 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Khorfakkan, a city on the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates where the vessel had been for months.

The Emirati government, the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet did not respond to requests for comment. Iranian state media did not immediately report on the vessel and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In May, the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against two Iranians, accusing them of trying to launder some $12 million to purchase the tanker, at that time named the MT Nautica, through a series of front companies. 

The vessel then took on Iranian oil from Kharg Island to sell abroad, the US government said.

Court documents allege the scheme involved the Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is its elite expeditionary unit, as well as Iran’s national oil and tanker companies. The two men charged, one of whom also has an Iraqi passport, remain at large.

“Because a US bank froze the funds related to the sale of the vessel, the seller never received payment,” the Justice Department said. “As a result, the seller instituted a civil action in the UAE to recover the vessel.”

That civil action was believed to be still pending, raising questions of how the tanker sailed away from the Emirates after being seized by authorities there.

Data from the MT Gulf Sky’s Automatic Identification System tracker shows it had been turned off around 4:30 a.m. on July 5, according to ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but Iranian vessels routinely turn theirs off to mask their movements.

Meanwhile, the 28 Indian sailors on board the vessel found themselves stuck on board without pay for months, according to the International Labor Organization. It filed a report saying the vessel and its sailors had been abandoned by its owners since March off Khorfakkan. The ILO did not respond to a request for comment.

As tensions between Iran and the US heated up last year, tankers plying the waters of the Mideast became targets, particularly near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Gulf’s narrow mouth through which 20 percent of all oil passes. Suspected limpet mine attacks the US blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.