Cyprus sets stage for tourism recovery as airports reopen

Cyprus is marketing itself as a relatively safe holiday destination in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, with a transmission rate below one and a very low mortality rate

Cyprus opens back up 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 told AFP.

"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 GDP 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 will open up to arrivals on Tuesday with the first flight due to arrive from Athens around midday (0900GMT), 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.

- 'Right thing to do' -

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."