The call of the ‘real Cyprus’

Sofronios Potamitis was one of the first to spot the potential of rural tourism and began converting derelict village houses into tourist accommodation back in 1987.

The outlook for Cyprus’ beleaguered tourism industry is still looking grim, with latest figures showing a further drop in arrivals against the same period last year.

“Our customers are what I call travellers, they are looking for the feeling of Cyprus, something quiet and original rather than a commercial holiday.” – Sofronios Potamitis

It’s yet another wake-up call for an industry which has been hitting the snooze button for far too long, waiting in vain for a change of fortune rather than addressing the need for a drastic new strategy. Naturally, criticism has been levelled at the Cyprus’ Tourism Organisation (CTO), including a scathing attack by Commerce Minister Antonis Paschalides.

Despite efforts to develop sport and rural tourism markets – the latter implemented in the early nineties – good intentions and initiatives have taken a ‘slowly, slowly’ approach to exploiting opportunities.

Fortunately some operators have been more proactive in promoting holidays to the island’s heartland; an area they believe is one of Cyprus’ strongest selling points.

Sofronios Potamitis was one of the first to spot its potential and began converting derelict village houses into tourist accommodation back in 1987.

Today his company Cyprus Villages operates 150 beds in traditionally-styled studios, apartments and houses located in tranquil villages across the island.

“Our customers are what I call travellers, they are looking for the feeling of Cyprus, something quiet and original rather than a commercial holiday,” he explains.

“They don’t just come here for the sun or for the beach they want something else.” The company caters to the market by offering rustic activity packages covering a multitude of special interests, from tango classes and horse riding to cycling and esoteric breaks.

For small operators like Cyprus Villages, the escalating cost of flights and competition from cheaper destinations like Turkey, Egypt and Spain has led to a year-on-year decline in customers. Financial pressure has already forced Sofronios to reduce his accommodation holdings and cut back staff.

“It really is a desperate financial situation, we are struggling to survive,” he says. “There is not really any effort from the CTO, they don’t ask how they can help us because we’re too small for them,” he claims.

It’s a frustrating situation for a businessman with a lifetime of experience in the industry and an economics degree from California’s Berkeley University.

He strongly believes resources are being wasted on promoting tired, overdeveloped beach resorts lacking in cultural identity, rather than investing in tourism infrastructure and visitor strategies which highlight Cyprus ‘uniqueness.’

“They (the CTO) have to start building a more diverse market. They focus on one or two markets then when it falls down they put more money into it to pick it up but it doesn’t make any difference,” he says comparing today’s challenges with less demanding customers of the past.

“It was easy; the tour operators had their own planes they brought the customers and it was no effort – you didn’t have to entertain them they just went to Ayia Napa or Paphos – end of story.

That market is gone you have to bring customers that want to truly experience Cyprus and create other needs; special interests like music, dance or culture for example.” Sofronios ‘real’ Cyprus can be found less than a thirty minute drive from the island’s coastal resorts.

Follow any number of routes along forested back roads and you’ll soon discover something of the old ways; old men engaged in ritual afternoon games of tavli outside village kafenias, and black-clad widows gossiping with neighbours along narrow streets where the only sign of change is the occasional foreign-owned bicycle hire shop or art gallery.

Here tourists are more likely to find the genuine ‘warm Cypriot welcome’ touted in every holiday brochure but in reality closer to extinction than the island’s indigenous Moufflon.

The heartland offers plenty of stimulating activities. Walkers have a choice of over seventy hiking trails such as those on the final stage of the European E4 route. Wine and culture buffs can take one of a dozen themed touring routes, from sites associated with Aphrodite to religious icon hopping.

With a mild year-round climate there are fewer seasonal restraints and spring and autumn months are a particularly good time for bird watching, walking and cycling.

It’s a rare weekend when there isn’t some kind of rural festival taking place, from traditional agricultural celebrations to contemporary events dedicated to music, film and the arts.

Secluded artists’ communities like those in Armageti, Lemona, Plataniskia and Lania offer lessons in painting, mosaics and local crafts; while events like the Troodos Sports and Fun Festiva’ enable tourists and locals to try their hand at adventure sports like climbing, archery and mountain biking.

Several communities have joined forces to develop their particular brand of ‘uniqueness’ through sustainable tourism initiatives such as the ‘European Destinations of Excellence’ (EDEN) scheme.

Cyprus’ members include the Troodos region and Vouni Panagias, chosen for its walking trails, wine industry and protection of local wildlife.

To the east the mountain village of Agros was awarded the designation for successfully promoting its agricultural heritage, gastronomy and famous rosewater festival.

Weary of ham-fisted marketing efforts Sofronios has taken the initiative to bring rural tourism operators together on a single web platform to promote the wealth of experiences Cyprus has to offer. “We are trying to open visitor’s eyes to Cyprus.

It’s not just about where to sleep but what you can do while you are here – to get in touch with nature and appreciate our gastronomy, culture, history and architecture.

We haven’t yet sold this higher level potential of Cyprus and all these things add up to a unique experience.”