KYKKOS MONASTERY, Cyprus (AP) – Archimandrite Agathonikos bows before the silver-covered icon of the Virgin Mary to pray for an end to the war between “peoples of the same religion” in Ukraine.
Until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox believers visiting Cyprus came to venerate the relic every day. Tradition dictates that it was sculpted from beeswax and mastic by Luke the Evangelist and blessed by the Virgin herself as a faithful representation of her image.
With war on the horizon and a European Union ban on Russian flights, the estimated 800,000 Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers who head to Cyprus each year for its warm, azure waters and religious history dating back to the dawn of Christianity are practically gone dropped zero. In the record year 2019, they made up a fifth of all tourists to the island state in the Mediterranean Sea south of Turkey.
“Today many believers from these two countries fought,” 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 believers in both countries should pray for this.”
He is the abbot of Kykkos Monastery on the north-eastern ridge of the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, which has been the home of the icon for almost a thousand years. It, the tomb of St. 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 pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Agathonikos said.
Their absence this year, attributed to a sharp drop in tourism early in the pandemic, has hurt revenues in a country whose tourism sector accounts for more than 10% of its economy. Other nations that depend on Russian and Ukrainian visitors, such as Turkey, Cuba and Egypt, also braced for casualties just as tourism was getting back on its feet.
Cyprus Deputy Minister of Tourism Savvas Perdios estimates that losses from Russian and Ukrainian visitors this year will amount to around 600 million euros ($645 million), with the pre-war expected number of visitors from 2019 would approach.
Cyprus is one of the shortest flights from Russia to any Mediterranean holiday destination, but the EU flight ban negated that advantage.
Businesses are suffering, especially local travel agencies working with large tour operators focused on the Russian market. Some hotels on Cyprus’ popular east coast that catered to Russian holidaymakers are also feeling the sting, said Haris Loizides, chief executive officer of the Cyprus Hotel Association.
An additional burden for hotel owners is high inflation, which has pushed up operating costs, he said.
Vassos Xidias, owner of a fish taverna that bears his name and overlooks the small port of Ayia Napa, says his business has plummeted by up to 50% this year because he lost the Russian market.
“There is a huge problem with our work,” said Xidias. “Now we will see how much this is covered by the European market and others. It’s the gamble we’re waiting for in the next four months that remain of the tourist season.
Despite the upheaval, officials say Cyprus is likely to account for a sizeable chunk of the lost revenue, thanks to foresight and planning to find new markets before Russia invades Ukraine.
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 a Russian leaves about 60 euros per person per day in Cyprus, while other nationalities spend about 90 euros,” says Perdios.
While two years ago there were no direct flights from France to Cyprus, this year there will be 20 flights per week. 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 be reporting fewer bookings than in 2019, but higher guest spending should boost revenue.
Both Loizides and Perdios say this optimism is driven by the public’s desire to get away after two years of pandemic lockdowns.
“Nothing will stop people from traveling this year,” said Perdios.
Loizides said hotel owners haven’t entirely given up on bringing Russian tourists this summer. He says they are studying the possibility of bringing Russians to Cyprus via countries not bound by the no-fly zone, such as Serbia, Georgia and Israel.
According to Perdios, his ministry’s revised tourism strategy has gained traction in European markets as it highlights what Cyprus has to offer beyond sun and surf.
These include vegan-friendly hotels and hilltop village winery tours to explore wines like Commandaria, winner of the first international wine competition in 1224.
“We’ve put in 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 we’ll be fine,'” Perdios said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine