AYIA NAPA — Beside the sparkling Mediterranean waters of the Cypriot resort town of Ayia Napa, bars are bouncing back with foam dancing parties as tourist numbers rebound after two tough years of the pandemic.
But one key nationality is indeed missing: Russian visitors, as the once lucrative market was hit by European Union sanctions imposed after Moscow invaded Ukraine.
“This year we expected 800,000 Russian tourists,” said Haris Loizides, head of the Cyprus Hotel Association.
The Russian market “was wiped out overnight,” said Christos Angelides, president of the Pancyprian Association of Hotel Managers. “Nobody was prepared for this huge change.”
The key tourism sector, which had contributed 2.68 billion euros ($2.72 billion) in 2019, or 15% of GDP, is still counting the cost of disastrous years of Covid travel chaos.
In 2019, before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a fifth of tourists were Russians – 782,000 out of 3.9 million – making it the holiday island’s second largest market after Britain.
Last year, despite strict Covid travel restrictions, that share rose to more than 25%, with arrivals from Russia totaling nearly 520,000 out of 1.93 million.
Traders had hoped this summer would see Russian numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.
Theft bans, banking sanctions
Some 18,000 Russians reside in Cyprus, many of them in the seaside town of Limassol – dubbed by some “Moscow on the Mediterranean”.
But with continued EU sanctions against Russia and unrelenting bloodshed on Ukrainian battlefields, only 17,000 Russian tourists came to Cyprus between January and June.
“Our hotel is doing well, but others – which had an all-Russian clientele – are not,” said Angelides, who is also the manager of the Napa Mermaid hotel.
Nicosia and Moscow have close political and cultural ties, but when Russia sent troops to Ukraine, the Cypriot parliament unanimously passed a resolution condemning the invasion.
Cyprus, the EU’s easternmost member, has backed the bloc’s actions against Moscow, including a flight ban and sanctions barring some Russian banks from accessing the SWIFT financial system.
The Ministry of Tourism says fewer Russian visitors could mean some $600 million in potential lost revenue.
Overall, tourist arrivals to Cyprus are rebounding, thanks to strong demand in other key markets following the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
From January to June, Cyprus recorded 1.2 million visitors, nearly five times last year’s level, and Ayia Napa’s white sand beaches are packed with sun-seekers and revelers.
But this is still 25% less than the same period in 2019, when 1.63 million tourists came to Cyprus.
“We have somewhat limited the damage, but it is impossible to replace this large number of customers,” added Angelides.
In the first half of this year, British tourists made up almost two-fifths of visitors, followed by Israelis, accounting for 7% of visitors, then Poland, Germany and Greece.
“There have been many attempts from several sectors to encourage tourists from other markets, such as the German, Polish, Italian and French markets,” said Charis Papacharalambous, spokesman for the Association of Cypriot Travel Agents. (ACTA).
But it was still “very difficult to fill the big void” left by Russian tourists, he added, with industry experts fearing the impact could worsen further as many Russians previously preferred to visit more late in the year.
For Loizides, from the island’s hotel association, the war in Ukraine has also posed another problem.
The conflict-induced spike in global fuel prices has pushed up electricity prices.
As tourists crank up the air conditioning to counter Cyprus’ sweltering heat, hotels are saddled with “astronomical bills”, Loizides said.
“The EU must remedy this situation and help businesses, especially at a time when inflation is raging,” he added.
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