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Fri 3 May 2019 12:32 AM

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How Cyprus is setting its sights on more Gulf tourists

Savvas Perdios, Cyprus's Deputy Minister of Tourism, outlines the island nation's plans to strengthen ties with Gulf countries and attract new visitors from this as-yet untapped region

How Cyprus is setting its sights on more Gulf tourists
Perdios says there is plenty of scope for further development within Cyprus’s hospitality sector

Everyone knows how it feels to start a new job: that heady mixture of excitement and anticipation. Appointed to the newly created post of Deputy Minister of Tourism for Cyprus in January 2019, Savvas Perdios could be forgiven a few butterflies in the stomach, but the man charged with growing the nation’s hospitality sector seems altogether at ease in his new role.

“I feel great,” he says as we take a seat in his new office, located in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia. “The team here – we’re very together. For me, it’s obviously something new because I come from the private sector. To see things from this side is different, but I’m very happy the government has chosen this way forward.”

Before joining the nascent ministry, Perdios was chief operating officer at Louis Hotels, where he oversaw 25 properties in Cyprus and Greece. He has worked across the entire hospitality spectrum during his career, from restaurants and bars to housekeeping and maintenance – experience he believes will prove invaluable when it comes to setting government policy.

“My previous exposure gave me the opportunity to think about what Cyprus needs in terms of investments and markets,” he explains.

“I have done a lot of research on segmentation, market demographics and the people we need to attract. I feel like I already have a draft business plan, which we will be using in the next few years.”

The Cyprus government is making efforts to promote the country as an ideal tourism destination for travellers from the Middle East and beyond

Perdios has taken the helm of Cyprus’s tourism sector at a favourable juncture. Last year, the country saw international visitor numbers top 3.9 million, a 7.5 percent increase on the 3.65 million people welcomed in 2017. Despite this growth, the deputy minister emphasises there is still a great deal of work to be done.

For example, tourists from the United Kingdom and Russia account for approximately 40 percent of Cyprus’s visitors, and the destination tends to attract an influx of holidaymakers – about 75 percent of total arrivals – during its summer months.

In addition to maintaining an upward trajectory, Perdios aims to create a more balanced customer base while increasing winter visitation to 40 percent. The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, he says, will play an important role in helping to achieve these goals.

It’s easy to see why Perdios is looking east to bring about greater diversity. Cyprus is the closest European country to the GCC, yet the region currently accounts for a relatively small proportion of arrivals – just “one or two percent”, according to the deputy minister. Only 21,000 people travelled to the island from the UAE in 2018.

Guests from the GCC are known to be high spenders, and we feel we can offer the upgraded service and experience that they want to encounter

“Our country has mainly focused on Northern Europe [in the past],” he says. “I’m not saying that this market is saturated but we’ve never looked to the right. [GCC tourists] fly a lot. They travel for long periods of time and, often, in large numbers.

“The potential is huge for two reasons. One is that current figures are not as high as they could be and, luckily for us, the flights are already there. [Secondly], guests from the GCC are known to be high spenders, and we feel we can offer the upgraded service and experience that they want to encounter while they’re here.”

Transport links form an integral part of Perdios’s strategy for the Gulf. Fledgling visitor numbers have not deterred GCC airlines from establishing routes, with Emirates and Gulf Air already offering direct flights to Larnaca International Airport. Nevertheless, the deputy minister and his team are working to secure additional connections.

“There’s a lot of potential to add flights, and this will be our focus over the next few months,” he says. “I want to start talking to even more airlines and tour operators.

The island’s expansive coastline is home to a variety of marinas and different-style beaches

“Cyprus is not a country that interferes in [companies’] business models. You can set your price wherever you want; it depends on supply and demand. What we do want, though, is competition. Real competition. This is what drives the global economy so it’s very important for us to increase the number of collaborators and also the number of flights.”

To this end, Perdios and his team have travelled to Dubai to attend the Arabian Travel Market, considered as one of the biggest travel and tourism events in the region. He wants to use the show as a platform to engage regional carriers, further bolstering transport links between Cyprus and the GCC.

Given the four-hour flight time between Dubai and Larnaca, flydubai represents a key target. “We have arranged meetings with them already,” Perdios says. “Personally, I haven’t met the executives yet [but] now that we are actually a ministry there is potential for high-level discussions with real juice.

“We want to take the opportunity to sit down together for the first time and talk about everything: how we can connect; what we can do to help, especially in terms of marketing; and the message we want to push out,” he explains, adding that he also intends to hold talks with Kuwait Airways and Saudia.

By attracting clientele from the GCC, we hope to make it more appealing for global brands to establish properties here

As well as helping to increase visitation from Gulf countries, Perdios believes that improved transport links will encourage increased levels of GCC investment in Cyprus.

“From a business perspective, we feel there is a lot of value in increasing flights because when someone from the GCC wants to invest in Europe, flights play a part in that. If you want to buy property or invest in a project, you have to be able to visit as often as you need to.”

Although a key component in Perdios’s strategy, increased cooperation with regional airlines and tour operators is only the first step in growing GCC visitation. Whether travelling for business or pleasure, Gulf tourists are unlikely to choose Cyprus as a destination unless they are confident that a robust offering awaits them when they step off the plane.

Fortunately for Perdios, his country is home to a well-established hospitality industry and more than 11,000 years of human history. During a tour of the island, our friendly guide describes Cyprus as an “open-air museum”, and she is not exaggerating. Historical jewels lie around every corner, offering a fascinating mixture of eastern and western influences.

Larnaka International Airport is Cyprus’s main international gateway

What’s more, you don’t have to travel far to see everything. Nicosia is a 50-minute drive north from Larnaca International Airport, and it takes less than two hours to travel from the capital to the west-coast city of Paphos. It may only be the third largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia, but Cyprus boasts a dizzying array of cultural attractions.

Stops on our five-day excursion include the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque in Larnaca, the Timios Stavros Monastery in Omodos, the ancient ruins of Kourion near Limassol, and the Tomb of the Kings on the outskirts of Paphos. It only takes two and a half hours to drive to these four sites in order, meaning a family could quite easily immerse themselves in Islamic, Christian, Graeco-Roman and Paphian culture in the space of a day, and still arrive back at their hotel in time for tea.

The historical influence of the Middle East is plain to see across the length and breadth of Cyprus, not only at its many heritage sites but also in terms of its music and cuisine. The latter especially will feel familiar to GCC visitors; from boutique hotels to local tavernas, delicious Mediterranean staples are typically served up with a Levantine twist.

One area in which Cyprus differs significantly from the Middle East, however, is in the diversity of its geography. “It snowed last week,” our guide says as our bus makes its way to the top of the Troodos Mountains. The announcement causes a ripple of excitement among the group, a number of whom have never seen genuine snow. The first sighting of a white peak prompts a round of applause. Five minutes later, we are enjoying an impromptu snowball fight.

Cyprus’s revenue from tourism reached $44.5m in January 2019, according to a government report

Just a week before our visit, adventurous weekenders were carving up the ski slopes of Troodos while, only 35km away, those in search of a more relaxing experience were sunning themselves on Limassol’s sandy beaches. Between these two extremes visitors will find lush greenery, serene salt lakes and wildlife ranging from the ultra-rare black flamingo to the elusive mouflon.

When it comes to accommodation, Cyprus boasts a broad variety of hotels and serviced apartments. We stay at three properties during our trip: Casale Panayiotis in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis; Alasia Hotel, a boutique property in Limassol; and Paphos’s Asimina Suites Hotel, part of the Constantinou Bros Group. Before departing, we also have the chance to dine at Columbia Beach Resort, a five-star hotel near the charming village of Pissouri.

Despite this diversity, Perdios says there is plenty of scope for further development within Cyprus’s hospitality sector. Again, the GCC forms an important part of his long-term growth strategy.

“Cyprus is an ideal place to invest in tourism,” he explains. “Even though we’ve been around for many years, there is a general absence of [international] brands. You don’t [tend to see many] InterContinentals, Marriots, Banyan Trees or Conrads, for instance. Our market is not consolidated on that front. There are a lot of individual properties; a lot of individual owners.

Cyprus offers a number of hotels and accommodations from five-star to the affordable

“We feel it’s a cycle. By attracting clientele from the GCC, we hope to make it more appealing for global brands to establish properties here.”

Perdios cites two examples of Cyprus-based developments that are taking shape with the help of foreign investment: Ayia Napa Marina, the brainchild of Cypriot entrepreneur Gerasimos Caramondanis and Egyptian investor Naguib Sawiris; and City of Dreams Mediterranean, a new resort that is being developed as part of a joint venture between Cyprus Phassouri Zakaki and Hong Kong-headquartered Melco International Development.

“Ayia Napa Marina will hopefully be ready by the end of the year,” he says.

“The resort in Limassol is also a huge statement. If a company like Melco chooses Cyprus to take its first step into Europe, it’s because they believe in the GCC market. Their devotion opened our eyes because when you see a big investor spending €700m ($790m) in your country, you have to wake up. You have to ask: Why?”

The country’s natural beauty is a draw among tourists from all over the world

Perdios is confident that international ventures such as these will encourage GCC hospitality brands to follow suit.

“Limassol is a great place to be right now,” he says. “It would definitely appeal to guests from the GCC. Certainly, [brands such as] Rotana or Jumeirah – I could see them there. Whether they’re talking about hotels, branded residences or integrated resorts, I think they have a role to play.

“Rest assured, that forms part of our plans. It will happen. We are very familiar with [GCC] brands. We have, I feel, very good contacts abroad and it is a discussion that we will be initiating.”

Although the country has not yet secured large-scale investment from the GCC, Perdios expects Gulf states to make a significant contribution to the delivery of the Cyprus Tourism Strategy 2030. “This strategy is specifically focused on special interest products,” he explains. “We’re talking about big projects as well, and we feel there will be interest from the GCC,” he says.

Kourion is a ancient city-state on the southwestern coast of Cyprus

In the meantime, Perdios intends to build on his ministerial appointment – as well as that of a regional manager for Middle East countries in November 2018 – by continuing to strengthen front-line ties with Gulf countries.

“Above all, this industry is about humans,” he says.

“We feel that nothing can replace one-to-one interaction and the fact that we have appointed a regional manager [for the Middle East] shows two things: firstly, how seriously we take the region and, secondly, how seriously we take personal relationships.”

Perdios’s vision for the future relationship between Cyprus and the GCC appears to be based on mutual benefit, a concept that is quite literally enshrined in the island’s ancient heritage.

We’re talking about big projects as well, and we feel there will be interest from the GCC

A mosaic adorning the entrance to Eustolios House in Kourion bears the welcoming inscription: ‘Enter to thy good fortune and may thy comings bless this house.’

Replace ‘house’ with ‘country’ and you have the deputy minister’s GCC strategy in a nutshell.

The jewel of the Mediterranean

Cyprus is a small island with a long history and a rich culture that spans 10,000 years, making it one of the oldest civilisations in the Mediterranean – as evidenced by the many fascinating cultural sights, museums, monuments and galleries.

Situated at the crossroads of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – the island’s unique geographic position has played an important part in its past since antiquity. Its Prehistoric Age inhabitants were joined 3,500 years ago by the Mycenaean Greeks, who introduced and established their civilisation, thus permanently instilling the island’s Greek roots. Many other cultures followed thereafter, including Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and British, who all left behind visible remnants of their passage, and have thus created a mosaic of different cultures and periods. As such, the island is an open-air museum of prehistoric settlements – classical Greek temples, Roman theatres and villas, Early Christian basilicas, Byzantine churches and monasteries, Crusader castles, Gothic cathedrals, Venetian fortifications, mosques, and British colonial-style buildings.

The old ways of life, customs and traditions are still beautifully preserved in the rural villages, and interesting elements of the island are captured in the many museums and galleries.

It is not surprising then that UNESCO includes a number of the island’s sights on its list of World Heritage Sites. The preservation of historical sites and riches is of the upmost priority for the island. When visiting Cyprus, you will never have to look far to find a piece of its history and culture, whether you want to discover more about the traditions of the island, or immerse yourself in its captivating past.

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