AN EMPTY ISLAND
for The Telegraph
Corona has wreaked havoc around the globe. But those countries that rely almost solely on tourism may never recover. Here, residents of Cyprus tell their stories of hope and suffering through the pandemic.
Cerulean seas, cloudless skies, and the long, endless summer – these are the ‘Cyprus clichés’; the things I laud over my English relatives. But they’re true. They’re the reason many of us expats chose to live here. And they’re also what motivates the millions of visitors to the island each year.
In 2019, back when we’d never heard of corona, Cyprus welcomed four million tourists to the island – a record high. Tourism is a driving force for the economy. Thousands of us, in one way or another, relying on the annual influx to keep our finances afloat. Enter COVID-19.
On March 9 (the day after my 72-year-old mother returned – corona-free, thank goodness – to the Cotswolds from her annual two weeks in the Med) our first case two cases were announced: a health professional who had recently returned from the UK, and a young man who had flown back from Italy. On March 13, the President announced all borders would be closed to anyone except returning nationals for the next few weeks. And the lockdown had begun.
My husband and I – both writers, and able to work from home – isolated immediately (albeit after a three-trolley shopping run that involved too many Toblerones). But in Cyprus, the tourist industry has such a far-reaching impact that many simply refused to accept that the strictures would last.
As the government imposed stricter measures on arrivals, visitor figures plummeted. Summer came; the tourists didn’t. From March 15 to June 8, the government had set measures which included an entry ban on foreign visitors. But even when the airports finally reopened, figures remained at a record low.
In June 2020, usually amongst the busiest months of the year, tourism was down over 90 per cent; just 22 000 arrivals – hardly enough to fill a couple of the larger hotels. Smaller establishments all over the island shut up shop; short-term rentals never opened their doors.
Like many of our friends, my husband and I rented a cut-price villa in Ayia Napa for a few weeks, and experienced the unsettling peace of a party place turned ghost town. Kiosks, shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs which once lit the sky from dusk till dawn were dead; seasonal workers packed the unemployment offices.
Initially, I thrilled to the government’s quick response, which involved limited visits to the outside world and a strict system of text messaging one’s purpose for travel to the relevant authorities. We would beat this; Cyprus could be an example to the rest of the world! The daily case numbers peaked at just over 50 at their worst; deaths stood at 25. Lockdown was devastating, but we would survive! In the meantime, I learnt to sew masks when there was a shortage, tried growing my own celery (complete fail), and taught myself to cook a truly loathsome spag bol.
And by September, the situation had begun to relax. Lockdown was long over; the daily corona figures were in the single digits for the most part. We were able to get out and about; kids returned to school, students to university. Those in the tourist industry who had survived the summer hoped for an increase in winter tourism – an initiative the Ministry of Tourism had been pushing for a while.
And then, mid-October, it all began again. Almost overnight, the number of daily confirmed cases rocketed. First to 51 and then to 104. And on October 17, Cyprus saw 202 confirmed cases in one day: the highest figure to date, and one which – on a small island where community and family are everything – has us all whispering ‘second lockdown’.
With this, of course, comes the fear and the stress. Coronavirus testing facilities admit to being overwhelmed. Those in the tourist industry are feeling futile; winter arrivals will not save the day. Parents are terrified they’ll once more have to homeschool (two schools in the worst affected areas of Limassol and Paphos have already closed); restaurants which survived the summer are reconsidering their options; businesses are reintroducing remote work.
Compulsory mask-wearing has been introduced inside for the first time. (As I type, my glasses fog over my giraffe-patterned mask!) Those who refuse to comply are being booked in droves. Just today, the Health Minister has announced that an 11pm curfew will be imposed in the Limassol and Paphos districts, and masks are now to be made compulsory outdoors.
We all wait anxiously for news of What Will Happen Next. And the prevailing feeling is that Cyprus will not survive a second lockdown.
“We just cannot afford this financially,” acknowledges the owner of a branding agency which caters primarily to the tourist sector. “Without planeloads of tourists, primarily from Britain, we’re in trouble. The first lockdown was catastrophic, with a knock-on effect across the island. Wineries, supermarkets, boutiques, excursion companies, kiosks, rental car businesses... So many places went under. I cannot believe the government will do the same thing again.”
Others are not as hopeful. “Second lockdown is coming,” says a Nicosia-based restaurateur who closed his doors and retired in June, a casualty of the spring lockdown. “The figures will continue to rise because we have become complacent. That’s how we are here on the island. At first we were terrified. Now? Well, everyone is asking ‘Do you know anyone who has had corona? Who do you actually know who has died?’ And gradually, people are starting to suggest that COVID-19 is a hoax. But it’s not. And so the only thing the government can do is create another lockdown.”
Me? I used to write primarily for the tourist industry. And while I’ve been able to pivot towards the commercial sector, not everyone has been so fortunate. We’ve seen what lockdown can do to the small business-owners and their dependants. Big business will probably survive, although the Deputy Tourism Minister has suggested we won’t see a return to our former level of visitors much before 2023 or 2024. But for the smaller companies who rely on the steady influx of foreign visitors, the future is bleak. What price that endless summer now?