By MENELAOS HADJICOSTIS
KYKKOS MONASTERY, Cyprus (AP) — Archimandrite Agathonikos bows before the silver-covered icon of the Virgin Mary to offer prayers 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 faithful visiting Cyprus would come daily to venerate the relic. Tradition dictates 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 a European Union ban on Russian flights, the estimated 800,000 Russian and Ukrainian vacationers that head to Cyprus each year for its warm, azure waters and religious history stretching back to the dawn of Christianity are practically down to zero. In record-setting 2019, they made up a fifth of all tourists to the island nation in the Mediterranean Sea south of Turkey.
“We’ve had many worshippers from these two countries fighting today,” Agathonikos said. “I wish and pray to our Virgin that these two peoples who fight today are shown the way to peace — the faithful in both countries should pray for that.”
He is the abbot of Kykkos Monastery on the northeastern ridgeline of Cyprus’ Troodos mountain range, which has been home to the icon for nearly a thousand years. It, the tomb of St. Lazarus in Larnaca and the monastery of Stavrovouni that houses a large piece of the Holy Cross are important Cyprus stops for Russians and Ukrainians on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Agathonikos said.
Their absence this year, coming on the back of a steep drop in tourism at the pandemic’s outset, has cut into the revenue of a country whose tourism sector accounts for more than 10% of its economy. Other nations that rely on Russian and Ukrainian visitors like Turkey, Cuba and Egypt also braced for losses just as tourism began bouncing back.
Cyprus Deputy Minister for Tourism Savvas Perdios estimates the loss from Russian and Ukrainian visitors will total about 600 million euros ($645 million) this year, with expectations before the war that the number of visitors would be approaching that of 2019.
Cyprus is one of the shortest flights from Russia to any Mediterranean holiday destination, but the EU flight ban negated that advantage.
Businesses are hurting, especially local travel agencies that work with big tour operators focusing on the Russian market. Some hotels on Cyprus’ popular eastern coastline that catered to Russian vacationers are feeling the sting, too, said Haris Loizides, board president of the Cyprus Hotel Association.
An additional burden weighing on hotel owners is high inflation that has cranked up operating costs, he said.
Vassos Xidias, proprietor of a seafood tavern bearing his name overlooking the small Ayia Napa harbor, says his business has dropped by as much as 50% this year because of losing the Russian market.
“There’s a huge problem in our work,” Xidias said. “Now, we’ll see how much this will be covered by the European market and others. It’s the gamble that we’re waiting to see over the next four months that remain” of the tourist season.
Despite the upheaval, officials say that thanks to foresight and planning to find new markets even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Cyprus is projected to make up a sizable chunk of the lost revenue.
More vacationers are expected this summer from European markets, including Scandinavian countries, France and Germany, who spend more per day on average than Russians.
“Now we are a point of comparison where, you know, a Russian person will be leaving in Cyprus around 60 euros per person per day, whereas other nationalities, around 90 euros,” Perdios says.
While there were no direct flights from France to Cyprus two years ago, 20 flights will take off each week this year. Weekly flights from Germany and Scandinavian countries have increased to 50 and 30, respectively, this year — higher than in 2019.
Lozides says hotel owners may be reporting fewer bookings than 2019, but higher guest spending is expected to 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 is going to stop people from traveling this year,” Perdios said.
Loizides said hotel owners haven’t given up entirely on bringing Russian tourists this summer. He says they’re looking into possibly getting Russians to Cyprus through countries not bound by the flight ban, like 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.
That includes vegan-friendly hotels and winery tours through mountainous villages to learn about wines such as Commandaria, winner of the first international wine competition in 1224.
“We have done so much work in order to be able to stand before 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’re going to be all right,’” Perdios said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine