29 Sep Interview with the Hon. Savvas Perdios, Deputy Minister of Tourism of the Republic of Cyprus
The COVID shock has been felt deeply across the world. While some nations continue the struggle, others – like Cyprus – are reigniting their economy and soon to welcome international visitors. You have spoken recently about a new paradigm in the travel sector, coining the term “tourism of rebuilding trust”. What does this mean to you and what key pillars is this concept founded upon in Cyprus?
I felt the term was appropriate for what we are going through now. In fact, this virus has shown how easy it is for our lives to be disrupted and be brought to a complete halt. It is something that no one imagined possible. Furthermore, the basic principle for travelers is to be able to trust the destination they are going to, the means of transport and the booking conditions. If you don’t have trust, you will not be able to travel. Now every destination faces the challenge of rebuilding trust again and that we never had to generate since it was taken for granted; that’s just how the system worked. The most important thing about the new normal is regenerating that trust.
Going back to basics, which refers to the efforts we need to make in communicating a message of confidence and inform how safe the country is, show a solid healthcare system and provide them with detailed information. For instance, the number of hospital beds available per hundred thousand population or the number of respirators, for example. These types of details have never been part of any marketing campaign however, these are primary questions in people’s minds today.
Overall, I would like to name the five most important pillars in order to rebuild trust. Firstly, I would like to highlight the aspect of local community, giving them the opportunity to promote local experiences, micro experiences and the whole destination. Secondly, the natural environment. This has to do with getting destinations to take into consideration the seasonality. This is especially true during the next couple of years as people are going to be moving away from the typical Instagram moments that bring about massive crowds and start being more conscious about crowding and checking this about a certain location. The third pillar is slow tourism and this is something that Cyprus is going to be focusing on in the next few years. The basic principles on which slow tourism is founded is physical intimacy, seeking places that are less crowded and will give people the time to enjoy the moment. We are used to running around and have a non-stop way of living our lives; I think this concept of tourism will slow people down a little. The fourth pillar is personal health; and this has to do with spiritual and mindful holistic approach to wellness.
The final pillar is human connection. Look at the growth of tourism over the last couple of decades, from 800 million to 1.4 billion in just a few years. Tourism is not a transaction and I think now there will be less trips internationally and will give our destinations the opportunity to treat travelers more as individuals, offering them personalized experiences and more flexible booking conditions. To sum up, these are the five pillars of the tourism industry that will rebuild trust: Local community, natural environment, slow tourism, personal health and human connection.
Today marks a new milestone in Cyprus’ emergence from the lockdown measures taken to contain the spread of the virus. International visitors from a select group of countries deemed as “safe” from an epidemiological standpoint will be welcomed to the country. The government has also announced it will cover anyone who tests positive while on holiday on the Mediterranean island. Tell us a bit more about your strategy when it comes to salvaging the summer season in Cyprus and how often new measures and decisions will be announced?
We have already created and announced a destination protocol which is based on physical distancing. At every point of the destination, whether a hotel, a theme park, a pool, the beach, clubs, coffee shops or any other type of establishment, the basic principle is social distancing. We are going to be strict assuring all employees wear gloves and masks without exceptions. On the guests’ side, we‘ll try to be more relaxed but we will always make sure we disinfect menus, chairs and tables at restaurants and hotel room keys among other objects. We have drafted an official letter by the government which was sent to tour operators, ministries of foreign affairs, published on our website and social media to keep everybody informed. We have also created a website called Cyprus Flight Pass where you fill in a questionnaire prior to travelling, ensuring the visitor is informed about the travel declaration. Simultaneously, we are aware of the destination of origin and other useful details that will help us to keep track of them. We also have 20 different Facebook accounts in our main source markets, so people can communicate with us through direct messaging.
This protocol has been passed on to our partners abroad and the key success factor of this protocol is that we have divided countries into categories based on their epidemiological situation, this means that for countries that show a similar or better epidemiological situation in compare to Cyprus, they are categorised and they don’t need to do a Covid test prior to arrival. For countries which are behind us, we allocate them in category B and the negative PCR test is required 72 hours prior to arrival. If the country does not make this available, when people land in Cyprus, we provide them the possibility of testing at their own expense. There is also a category of country which are still a few weeks behind us so we will wait until their epidemiological situation improves even further before allowing them to be in category A or B. This listing re-evaluates the situation every week, is dynamic, statistic-oriented, data-based, scientific and health professionals are involved in these decisions.
Moreover, we decided that anybody who is on the island on holiday and shows symptoms and consequently tests positive, we have decided that we will take care of them by hospitalizing them and provide them medication free of charge for as long as it takes. We will also take care of their family which are the patient’s close contacts. We will take them to a dedicated quarantine hotel where we will cover accommodation, drinks, food and entertainment for the kids if necessary. The reason why we decided to do that is because visitors have placed trust in our country and it is our mission to ensure that they feel protected and supported in a situation of adversity for as long as it takes. We wanted to create piece of mind for travellers – no matter what happens – that we will take care of them and they will be able to continue their holiday. One of the main reasons why we have made this decision is for our staff. The hospitality industry is the essence of this summer experience and they deserve to work in a safe environment. From the government, we want to make sure we always help providing safety both to travellers and employees.
You recently presented to the council of Ministers the progress of the implementation of the national tourism strategy 2030 and the current action plan for 2020, of which surprisingly — considering the circumstances — 55% of the goals are already accomplished. Let’s talk a little bit about how you are merging the overarching goals of the 2030 national strategy with the current 2020 action plan and its enhancements and adaptations to the current social and economic environment?
We launched the new 10-year tourism strategy for Cyprus in January and the reason why we felt it was needed is because it was a new decade. Cyprus had unbelievable success when it comes to attracting tourists and guests to the island, but we felt it was time to start pushing in a different direction and start knocking on some new doors; new doors that will allow all the Cyprus products to diversify. I will speak soon and briefly about what these five pillars are. We wanted to launch this new strategy at the time when everything was going well. This crisis happened before we had time to have a couple of years of the new strategy. In fact, the last three months if we go back to the tourism of rebuilding trust, that is the lesson we at the ministry of tourism learned over the last three months. We have decided we will speed up our new strategy. Normally, it would have taken two or three years however, covid-19 has taught us we have to move even faster towards this new direction.
Despite lockdown we have managed to push through 55% of this year’s action plan in 4 months. It is something to be proud of and we will keep pushing because regardless of the success this last decade we want Cyprus to take a different path and even more fruitful patch over the next ten years, so we need to keep pushing. Our main goal is for Cyprus to be considered by 2030 as one of the top 30 tourism destinations in the world by official international competitive statistics. Right now, we are ranked 44th. We have done very well bearing in mind we are a small island, but I think we can do even better.
To reach the top 30, we have pinpointed five pillars on which our whole strategy is based. The first is to move from this seasonal model of sun and sea holidays to a year-round model of tourism. The second pillar is to establish Cyprus as a higher quality destination and to do what you need to focus on diversifying markets. The third pillar is to establish Cyprus as a digitally smart destination, now that the pandemic has shown digital innovation is incredibly important not only for tourism but for life. The fourth is to establish Cyprus as a climate-friendly destination and is a big challenge but we need to be looking at that. Travel has been criticised over the last few years as one of the mayor factors that has influenced climate change and we, as an island only reachable by air and sea. We depend on air and sea links and it is difficult to convince people that we are also a climate-friendly destination, but we need to because the younger generations especially are looking for purpose behind their trips. If Cyprus wants to remain competitive, we need to take action and show people we are a climate-friendly destination despite you need to fly to get here.
Ultimately, the fifth pillar is to establish Cyprus as a destination where all regions and all residents can benefit from tourism. This is the social aspect because we suffer a lot from regionality, meaning that most of our tourism goes towards beach areas and we have a golden, unique and authentic experiences in the mountains and rural areas but we need to showcase this. For many reasons, because this is what the newest traveller wants and is a principle of taking destination capacity into consideration. If we really want to expand and understand what tourism means to this country, we need to make sure that all communities benefit from tourism, not only those families or businesspeople who have had the luck to have a piece of land by the sea. This pandemic, despite all the negatives, has come to enhance the necessity for us to do what we already wanted to do anyway.
The government of Cyprus has already taken several recovery measures, starting with the supplementary budget of 370 million euro approved by the House of Representatives last March. In addition to domestic finance, Cyprus can also benefit from the European Commission’s vision for post-pandemic recovery funds worth 1.85 trillion euros. The plan relies on both the long-term EU budget (2021-27) and a special recovery fund. Do you believe Cyprus will dispose of enough financial resources to ensure a rapid recovery of its economy, and especially of the tourism sector? What are the ideas on the table in terms of investments and packages aimed to support the post covid-19 phase? Where will the money be directed?
We have been supported tremendously by the EU. When I compare the amount that we have been given to a country like France for example and I look at the number of people living in each country, if you take the support divided by the number of citizens Cyprus has qualified for a higher support than many EU countries. I think is the first time the EU has realised how important tourism is and has included tourism in its calculations, so it seems that a lot of attention has been directed to countries where the tourism industry has suffered. Hospitality is one of the segments of the economy and not because we can all go on a holiday and have a nice time but because this sector employs so many people. One person in five works in the hospitality sector in Cyprus and based in this principle, the EU came out with a strong support mechanism, especially to countries based in the south.
Tourism is one of the sectors that will continue to be supported not only because of the importance to the economy but also because we were the first industry to be impacted and will be the last to get out of it. We are the farthest island country to the EU, distances to flight here are much longer than anywhere else so the cost is higher. We are a country of 800.000 inhabitants which means our country cannot depend on domestic tourism to rebuild our entire sector, Cyprus is heavily dependent on foreign tourism and that justifies the support we have been given to rebuild the sector.
There will be a regenerated interest towards investments related to national tourism. We have started with this procedure and we are reopening the marinas, casinos and golf courses among other venues. We are accelerating the creation of authentic experiences in rural areas and unique routes which will combine individual experiences, agritourism, biking routes and facilities. Everything that qualifies as a special interest form of tourism to our national tourism strategy.
Featuring Cyprus in Newsweek means you can reach C-Level, decision makers, the public opinion and holidaymakers all over the world, at a time of great uncertainty and at the start of a unique summer season. Tourism is the main economic engine in several countries in Europe, including Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal or France, and also Malta, Montenegro and others. What are the proposals that you will bring to the meetings at EU level but also in international forums on tourism, based on your experience and perception on the medium to long-term impact of coronavirus? What should be the priorities of the tourism sector and players, and of governments and international institutions from now on?
The aspect of relating tourism to the European Green Deal is of crucial importance. The second aspect is the digitization of the tourism experience. Thirdly, we want to restart travel in a way that doesn’t leave anybody behind, and that is the most challenging part. Particularly, from the moment that all EU countries have entered this crisis being at different stages, it is normal that they get out of it at different stages. It is not easy to get too many countries to agree to sit down and wait until everybody is at the same point coming out if it. We all need to be extra careful and maintain the EU principles. Diverse countries are accepting travelers earlier than others and we need to give ourselves the opportunity to move on in the most unified way in the next couple of months.
The importance of our region to developing the tourism product but also providing tourism Euros and not Dollars. Ultimately, Europe has an opportunity unilaterally to repurpose its tourism industry. We are the most important continent by far when it comes to tourism. Everybody from the whole world wants to visit Europe because as a continent and as a destination, has hundreds of places that anybody could visit. This is what makes Europe unique and what will be the key going forward in order to attract young generations. It is clear to me that everything they do is based on purpose and social media has created this platform where people can easily voice their concerns or their trust. Europe has an opportunity to create a higher purpose to its tourism industry. This is something that we are going to be strong advocates of because it benefits all of us. 40% of global tourism comes to Europe and we need to be aware that other continents are trying to eat into our share, so the future for us is a future of repositioning and repurpose.
Key message to the international audience of Newsweek.
Cyprus during this crisis has acted very early on; we were one of the first countries to shut down flights. We did that so we can get out of this as fast as possible and we have been able to welcome people again. During this process, it has been a tough period for all of us. We tested 12% of our population, which is one of the highest percentages in any country in Europe and especially in the Mediterranean. We had to lock down our people and we had to sacrifice a lot to be able to be here today and have this discussion with you. At the end of the day, we have managed to take care of our people and now it is time for us to show the world that we can take care of our world and upcoming visitors. We are excited about this since it is what we do best and we can’t wait to show the world that this country is not only a country of great pictures but of great hospitality, including a solid healthcare system which instantaneously generates an element of trust needed in these trying times.