An exclusive interview with Cyprus Minister of Tourism Mr. Savvas Perdios to the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency
Author: Maksim Urakin
Several days ago, Cyprus changed the rules of entry for Ukrainian citizens. Can you explain and tell more details about it?
It’s not a change for Ukrainian citizens, but a change for everybody who is entering the country. Just for a few weeks before more information about the Omicron coronavirus strain is available, we decided that all people whether they are vaccinated or not vaccinated, whether they are foreigners or they are locals they all have to do a PCR test upon arrival, just to make sure that they do not have a virus. It is something that is in place now only for a few weeks until January 10. After that, we go back to a protocol as it was before, which means that no test will be required for those who are vaccinated or recently recovered. And tests are needed for those who are not vaccinated. For children under the age of 12, it’s the same, no test is required, and for kids above 12 test is required.
What restrictions are imposed on tourists in Cyprus now?
Nothing at all. Everything is open. Restaurants are open. If you have the Cyprus flight pass you can use it for up a week. It gives you access to all the restaurants, nightclubs, malls. Everything is open. There are no restrictions for tourists. After 7 days you have to show that you are vaccinated, recovered or you have a negative test.
How many Ukrainian tourists have visited Cyprus this year and the previous year?
2019 was our best year for the Ukrainian market. Almost 100,000 people. This year I expect we will be not far with around 80,000 people. The Ukrainian market recovered well after the pandemic. It has been a lot of interest for Cyprus from Ukraine and I think it is also because we were one of the first countries that opened for Ukraine.
Ukraine is now number 5 among our partner-countries, it has increased a lot after the pandemic. Number 1 is still the UK, number 2 is Russia, number 3 is Poland, number 4 is Israel, number 5 is Ukraine, number 6 is Germany, number 7 is France. After that, there are a lot of countries that are in similar positions, such as Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, these countries are quite similar. I would say that Ukraine is now in the top 5 markets for us, before the pandemic it was not like this.
And what is the tendency of growth from year to year?
From 2014 we had a growth of around 20% every year. I think the growth is going to continue. I think next year will be the best year we have ever had for Ukraine. I think it is a market with a lot of potential for Cyprus, not only in summer but also in winter, especially due to the differences in weather. Also because of the short flight time, people come for short breaks, weekends, etc.
Can you give some figures about investments in roads, in infrastructure, in hotels?
In the next 4 years we are spending EUR 50 million to refresh hotels with fresh wellness. It is the combination of the state and the EU money. Investments in hotels provide more health, medical facilities. Investments in agro, tourism and mountain hotels make them more green, more digital. Investments are also made in restaurants, renovating restaurants that are offering traditional Cypriot cuisine. Renovating shops that sell traditional products. We are also investing money to create even more authentic experiences in the villages. So people who go there can see an authentic workshop, hand craft, how you carve stone, how you make traditional char, traditional shoes. We are investing a lot to see that tourism is in the hearts of the local community, to make sure people stay in the mountains. We are trying to make young people stay in the mountains. We are investing a lot in these sectors. So local people keep tourism in their heart.
Also I want to tell you about Musan. Musan is one of only three underwater forests in the world. It is a diving project. We opened it a few months ago and it is one of only three underwater forests in the world. The creator of Musan was looking for the cleanest water in Europe. We have the cleanest waters in Europe and this is proved by the European environmental agency.
What are the most popular places for Ukrainian tourists? Are they the same as those of other citizens or have some peculiarities?
The first thing Ukrainian citizens look for, especially in summer, when they come to Cyprus is a good weather, the sun and the sea. So traditionally the Ukrainian market has been focused on Famagusta. Famagusta has the best beaches in Cyprus and very clean water as well. I see that through the pandemic people are interested now in Limassol and Paphos. These places have a lot for shopping, a lot of culture as well, beautiful mountains with hiking, villages. Actually I think that Ukrainians are going to visit Cyprus all year round. Of course, some people will go for sun and sea, but others will chose villages, mountains, nature, shopping, etc.
What air companies and with what frequency fly to Cyprus from Ukraine and back? Are there plans to increase the frequency?
The important thing for us is that a lot of airlines are flying now from Ukraine to Cyprus. Always direct. One of the reasons we came to Ukraine now is to speak with airlines and present to them all of the products that we are adding, especially for winter, we have been doing a lot of work to make sure there is something to do in winter. I am sure more and more flights will be added between Ukraine and Cyprus.
Speaking about winter, what peculiarities would you like to present?
Well, I think we can divide it in to 3 parts. One is wine and gastronomy. The second is nature and nature activities. And the third is the villages.
In terms of wine and gastronomy, we have implemented the concept of Cyprus breakfast. It is available in restaurants, in hotels, in branch places. Another concept that we implemented is called Taste Cyprus, food from local ingredients, it is really authentic and very traditional.
We have launched another concept that is called Vegan Family Restaurants and Hotels. Because actually all over the world there are more and more people, especially young people, who are vegan, they do not eat meat, they do not eat animal products, this program is also for people who decide to eat more healthy a few times a week.
We have added 7 wine roots. Cyprus is one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world. We have been producing wine for 5,500 years. Our wine is one of the best in the world. Commandaria is a national sweet wine, it won an international wine competition in 1224. It is very important for Cyprus to have wine like this. Grapes are only grown at 14 villages.
That is part A for the winter, part B is related to nature. We have been upgrading a lot of our biking roads. Next year we are bringing tour de France to Cyprus. It is huge, it is one of the biggest tournaments in the world. Three years in a role it is coming to Cyprus. It is very important for us, we are developing the infrastructure, renovating accommodations in the mountains. So bikers and hikers can spend nights there.
And the third thing that we have been doing for the winter is related to the mountain villages. We are now awarding villages for how much nature they have, how many flowers they have, how clean they are, how sustainable they are, how many tourism businesses they have. This concept is called Colorful Villages of Cyprus.
The point is to improve our product. In a few days we are also launching the concept called Christmas Villages. We have selected 5 villages in Cyprus. We dress them in Christmas decoration, Christmas lights, Christmas set-up, Christmas music. Whole villages like a Christmas market. It is new for Cyprus and it is a new message for Cyprus , so there are things to do in winter as well . We created 3,000 kilometers of roads in villages. It is called a heart land of legends. You can go to a farm, pick up your eggs, make a traditional Cyprus breakfast. There are a lot of farms making wine, where you can pick up grapes, make your own wine. Or go to a grandmother’s house, see how she makes marmalade or halloumi (traditional Cyprus food).
We have started adding all these things to our product now. It is going to be seen as one umbrella. It is called a heart land of legends. The website is heartlandoflegends.com. People will be able to customize for themselves, it is not a mass market. People will be able to choose and create their own holiday.
For me it is very important that we speak about Christmas villages, what are they going to be. It is a completely new concept. Christmas villages in Cyprus is something for us that offer an additional product of mountains in winter. This is something that we are really pushing a lot now, the mountains. Because tourism in Cyprus started from the mountains, hundreds of years ago. This is where tourism started, this is where people lived. Later a lot of people moved to beach resorts. Now we try to spread tourism again back to the whole island.
To some degree Cyprus now is the so called local hub. People who are in Cyprus can visit Israel, Egypt, other countries. Can you give some explanation and the list of these countries?
Yeah. This is actually part of our national tourism strategy. To promote Cyprus as the place from where you can visit surrounding destinations as well. Cyprus is one-hour flight from 3 continents. We are one-hour flight from Europe, one hour from Africa, one hour from Asia. You can use Cyprus to visit Greece, for example, or visit Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon. All these countries are less than one hour away from Cyprus. There are a lot of flights daily to and from these destinations. That is part of our strategy to promote Cyprus for long distance destinations, like the U.S., for example, or China, Japan. These source markets are rarely go to one destination, they are also visiting the neighboring countries. Obviously, when somebody is flying from the U.S., they want to visit 2 or 3 countries, so they can stay a few days in Cyprus and also visit surrounding destinations. And it worked very well, because this year we brought the biggest cruise liner in the world to Cyprus – the Royal Caribbean. They created the home port in Cyprus for the first time ever. And for the first time ever we were able to bring a lot of people from Asia, from the U.S. to visit Cyprus and then take a ship to visit surrounding destinations.
Maybe to some degree a painful question for Cyprus citizens. Do you somehow coordinate your tourism activities with the so called administration, with the so called northern Cyprus. Do you have any relations?
No. There is no coordination from tourism perspective. If somebody wants to visit that area, it is possible with all of the risks because of the insurances, etc. Tour operators and companies that work with the Republic of Cyprus do not insure for visits of these areas. The coordination between the two sides is zero . People can go there only on their own risk.
Cyprus competes for tourists from Ukraine with more popular countries for our citizens as Egypt, Montenegro, Turkey. What methods are you implementing to attract our tourists?
Better quality. Always the solution in cases like this is better quality. Because such countries as Turkey, Montenegro, Egypt, always compete with Cyprus on one thing – prices, cheap prices. We will never be able to compete with cheap prices in Turkey and Egypt. Because Turkey or Egypt want to have over 100 million tourists per year. We don’t want to have 100 million tourists per year. We had 4 million tourists before the pandemic, we are a smaller country. We concentrate on quality and improving the product. Because we realize we never will be able to compete with Egypt, with Turkey, with Montenegro on the prices. They have cheap products, they have cheap currency. You can see that the currency in Turkey is devaluating all the time. It is very easy when the currency is devaluating to be a cheap destination and we don’t have this opportunity, we have euros, the euro is a strong currency. Also people in Cyprus are earning the fair living wage, so it is not so easy for us as for Turkey or Egypt to import products. So it is obvious that the cost of services is higher and we are offering better services – a cleaner environment, more experiences. This is our strategy when it comes to tourism.
Does the ministry have any special programs dedicated to promoting Cyprus to this or that country, to this or that region? Or you have only traditional methods which are implemented for every country?
No, every market is different. One way we work with many countries through collaborations with airlines, tour operators. So we work with them to join marketing campaigns, etc. But most of the time these campaigns are for summer, because that is when tour operators like to sell Cyprus, but in winter we have a much wider approach. In winter we penetrate 30 countries by using specific digital marketing campaigns – on YouTube, on Google, Facebook, on other social media platforms. We target by age, we target be special interest, paid ads and different campaigns. We are spending good money on our marketing right now, I am happy with the amount we are spending and we are doing it in a very customized approach, depending on the market. So in the country like Ukraine, for example, maybe we are focusing more on the age groups up to 50-55 years old. The other nationalities that we are marketing for 65 year-old plus. So for each market we chose what clients to target and it is very targeted and very customized.
Is medical tourism developing between our countries.
Yeah, medical tourism for Cyprus is something that we are starting to develop now. Actually some of the money that we have received from the European recovery fund are going for the renovation of hotels and to be sure that they are offering more health, wellness, medical facilities and also assisted living facilities. I think that Cyprus as a country that has an unbelievable climate for medical tourism. We have very clean oxygen, with a lot of vitamin D, because of the sun. We have sun 365 days a year. For vitamin D it is excellent. Our produce is very clean, bio, it is good for the health. I believe that for medical, or health, wellness tourism Cyprus is ideal from a holistic point of view. I am not only talking about going to the spa, to massage, pedicure or doing your hair and other things like that, I am talking about wellness from a holistic point of view – mind, body, nutrition, relaxation and things like these. I think during the next 5 years Cyprus will develop a lot when it comes to health, wellness and medical tourism. And if I combine these investments with investments that we are making in wine, gastronomy and local products, I think it is a great combination, again from the EU money by the way. This is a great combination to position Cyprus as an all year round wellness destination.
Speaking about students and universities, also the so called speaking clubs, do you develop these branches of activities to attract people to study English in Cyprus?
That is a very good question. That is something that we have discussed recently. As you know, Malta is specializing on that, but Malta is short-term. It is about month and a half. We are looking to do something different. We are looking to penetrate the Ukrainian market for longer term studies in Cyprus of Ukrainian nationals, not only languages, but the variety of subjects, of course, the language of education and speaking will be English. It is also a great opportunity to offer internships as well to people who study in Cyprus, especially in tourism industry, for example, because it is something that will help us provide a better service for Ukrainian nationals as well.
Do Cypriots have interest in Ukraine as a tourism destination?
If you look at the figures in 2019, we had 100,000 Ukrainians coming to Cyprus and we had 25,000 Cypriots coming to Ukraine. If you consider that Ukraine has more than 40 million people and Cyprus has less than 1 million people, you can see according to these ratios that there are more Cypriots coming to Ukraine than Ukrainians coming to Cyprus. I think that Ukraine has a potential to attract Cypriots especially for long weekends, breaks. As you know there are several cities in Ukraine that have linkage with the Greek heritage and I think this is a story that needs to be told more in Cyprus. I am sure that more Cypriots will be happy to visit Ukraine not only in winter but also in summer time, because the weather is nice, it is warm all the time and you have a very nice weather here that you will appreciate a lot. The flight is not long, it is maximum 3 hours. There are a lot of flights. It is very easy to get here, so it is no reason why Cypriots will not come here. Plus, something that is very important for Cypriots is the food, the food has been improving a lot here, it has been becoming more modern, so this is very important.
Speaking about wine and gastronomy, are you promoting these by some special efforts? Is it your co-business to promote wine, to promote gastronomy?
It is our business to promote that as part of tourism program, but it is not our job to promote the sale of halloumi or Cypriot wine abroad. That is the job of the ministry of commerce, or the ministry of agriculture. But there are synergies, we have to work together. When people want to buy halloumi or wine and they come to Cyprus, they see, they taste, etc. We try to show all our products to people who come to Cyprus, we always try to include wine and gastronomy in everything we promote in Cyprus. If we are promoting wellness, food is part of the promotion as well, if we are promoting religious tourism, food is part of that. No matter what tourists are doing in Cyprus, 3 times a day they have to eat. So food is very, very important. Mostly in all hotels and branch places people can find Cyprus breakfast. We have the concept of Taste Cyprus. Restaurants have authentic cuisine, local products and this is a network of restaurants that people can really go to and really enjoy the Cyprus gastronomy. Plus the wineries, also restaurants that have authentic Cypriot wines, or bars with authentic wine lists. Actually 3 weeks ago a European sommelier competition took place in Cyprus. So we are also trying to promote through the competitions like this. I know, that to promote Ukrainian wine, your people have established several festivals dedicated to wine culture, including Odessa Wine Festival. And our wine festivals are in September-October. And the biggest one takes place in Limassol.
What are your top 3 suggestions for Ukrainian citizens to go to Cyprus? In terms of what to do.
Savvas: Absolutely they have to visit one of the villages that is part of the Heart of Legends project. They have to visit our beaches, we have the best beaches in Europe. They have to eat authentic Cypriot food with the sweet Cypriot wine. It is a unique experience.