By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS – Associated Press
KYKKOS MONASTERY, Cyprus (AP) — Archimandrite Agathonikos bows before the silver icon of the Virgin Mary to offer prayers to end the war between “peoples of the same religion” in Ukraine.
Until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox faithful visiting Cyprus came daily to venerate the relic. Tradition has it that it was fashioned by Luke the Evangelist from beeswax and mastic and blessed by the Virgin herself as a true representation of her image.
With the war and the European Union banning Russian flights, the roughly 800,000 Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers who travel to Cyprus each year for its warm, azure waters and religious history dating back to the dawn of Christianity are virtually dropped to zero. In 2019, a record, they accounted for a fifth of all tourists to the Mediterranean Sea island nation south of Turkey.
“Many devotees from these two countries fought today,” Agathonikos said. “I wish and pray to Our Lady that these two peoples who are fighting today will be shown the way to peace – the faithful of both countries should pray for this.”
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He is the abbot of Kykkos Monastery on the northeast ridge line of Cyprus’ Troodos mountain range, which has housed the icon for almost a thousand years. She, the Tomb of Saint Lazarus in Larnaca and the Stavrovouni Monastery which houses a large piece of the Holy Cross are important stops in Cyprus for Russians and Ukrainians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Agathonikos said.
Their absence this year, following a sharp drop in tourism at the start of the pandemic, has cut into the income of a country whose tourism sector represents more than 10% of its economy. Other countries that rely on Russian and Ukrainian visitors such as Turkey, Cuba and Egypt also braced for losses just as tourism began to rebound.
Cypriot Deputy Tourism Minister Savvas Perdios estimates that the loss of Russian and Ukrainian visitors will amount to around 600 million euros ($645 million) this year, with pre-war expectations that the number of visitors would approach that of 2019.
Cyprus has one of the shortest flights from Russia to any Mediterranean holiday destination, but the EU flight ban has negated that advantage.
Businesses are suffering, especially local travel agencies that work with large tour operators focusing on the Russian market. Some hotels on Cyprus’ popular east coast that used to host Russian holidaymakers are also feeling the sting, said Haris Loizides, chairman of the board of the Cyprus Hotel Association.
An additional burden on hotel owners is high inflation which has driven up operating costs, he said.
Vassos Xidias, owner of a seafood tavern bearing his name overlooking the small port of Ayia Napa, says his business has fallen 50% this year due to the loss of the Russian market.
“There is a huge problem in our work,” Xidias said. “Now we will see how much that will be covered by the European market and others. That is the bet we expect to see in the next four months remaining” of the tourist season.
Despite the upheaval, officials say that with foresight and planning to find new markets even before Russia invades Ukraine, Cyprus should account for a significant share of lost revenue.
More holidaymakers are expected this summer from European markets, including Scandinavian countries, France and Germany, which spend more per day on average than Russians.
“Now we are a point of comparison where, you know, a Russian person will go to Cyprus around 60 euros per person per day, while other nationalities around 90 euros,” Perdios explains.
While there were no direct flights between France and Cyprus two years ago, 20 flights will take off every week this year. Weekly flights from Germany and Scandinavian countries have increased to 50 and 30, respectively, this year, more than in 2019.
According to Lozides, hotel owners may report fewer bookings than in 2019, but increased guest spending is expected to boost revenue.
Loizides and Perdios say that optimism is driven by the public’s desire to get away after two years of pandemic shutdowns.
“Nothing will stop people from traveling this year,” Perdios said.
Loizides said hotel owners have not completely given up on bringing in Russian tourists this summer. He says they are looking into the possibility of bringing Russians to Cyprus via countries not bound by the flight ban, such as Serbia, Georgia and Israel.
Perdios says his ministry’s revamped tourism strategy has gained traction in European markets as it highlights what Cyprus has to offer beyond sun and surf.
This includes vegan hotels and wine tours in mountain villages to learn about wines such as Commandaria, winner of the first international wine competition in 1224.
“We’ve done so much work to be able to stand in front of you today and say, ‘Hey, you know what? It’s going to be an OK season. It’s going to be a decent season. It’s not a disaster. And everything will be fine,” Perdios said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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