Cyprus offers to cover cost of holidays affected by coronavirus

Helena Smith in Athens
Photograph: Petros Karadjias/AP

The battle to lure tourists to the Mediterranean is hotting up with Cyprus declaring it will go one step further than its competitors, footing the bill for anyone whose holiday is ultimately ruined by coronavirus. 

The island says its decision to pick up the tab for infected tourists – providing free healthcare for Covid-19 patients and all hotel expenses for their dependents – will give it an unbeatable edge. 

Savvas Perdios, the deputy tourism minister, said: “We will cover the cost of hospitalisation of those who test positive during their holiday. And pay for their families and close contacts to be accommodated in quarantine hotels.”

While Britons are still banned from Cyprus, with local epidemiologists viewing Boris Johnson’s handling of the disease as catastrophic, Perdiossaid he hoped UK visitors would be allowed back in by early to mid-July. “The relevant list is updated continuously,” the tourism minister said. 

The only bills the Greek Cypriot government will not cover are those for repatriation flights and taxis to airports. 

Related: Life after lockdown in Athens: 'The marble had space to breathe'

The gesture to foreign tourists was outlined in a five-page letter to airlines and tour operators announcing the health protocols the island will adopt when it reopens to air travel on 9 June. It had been well received, Perdios said. “Neither Greece nor Spain will be able to do this with the tourism volume they’ll have,” he said. “t’s greatly appreciated by our partners abroad and is being seen as one of our strong points this summer.” 

In the unprecedented era of coronavirus, the tourism industry is more desperate than ever to lure holidaymakers. In Sicily, the regional government is planning to pay for one of every three nights in hotels in a €50m (£45m) scheme to attract visitors, including overseas tourists, while Spain’s state-owned, high-end Parador chain of castles and stately homes, is offering giveaway stays for about €65 a night. 

Perdios admits the tourist industry has taken “a massive hit” this year. Although the island has successfully kept the pandemic in check, attracting visitors this summer is going to be a herculean task. In the Greek south there have been fewer than 950 confirmed coronavirus cases and 17 deaths, while the breakaway Turkish north proclaimed itself coronavirus-free several weeks ago. But with the former colony reliant on British tourists, Greek Cypriot officials say they will be lucky to get a third of the estimated 3.98 million people who visited last year. Perdios says recognition of good healthcare, including availability of intensive care units, will play a crucial role when Cyprus readmits travellers from countries with similarly low infection rates next month.

With that in mind, 112 ICUs equipped with 200 respirators have been reserved for critically ill patients while a 100-bed hospital has been earmarked to cater exclusively for foreign tourists who test positive. A 500-room “quarantine hotel” for relatives and close contacts will also be set up. 

Like Greece, the island nation’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism and plans are afoot to extend the season into the winter – to attract visitors from the UK and other nations still struggling with the virus. 

Letting any tourists in is a calculated risk. In the race to readmit them, Cypriot authorities are demanding that, initially, visitors carry health certificates proving they have tested negative for Covid-19 at least three days before departure. 

From 20 June, when flights from 13 other, mostly central and eastern European countries resume, the precautionary measure will be lifted. At all times social distancing will have to be observed, be it at the pool, in the bar, cafes or pubs, with guests encouraged to pay with contactless cards and hotel staff obliged to wear masks. 

On Friday, Athens’s tourism ministry announced that from mid-June 29 countries would be able to resume air links with Greece. The list, which does not include nations still deemed to be Covid-19 hot-spots such as Spain, Italy and the UK, was broader than expected, reflecting the Greek government’s desire to kickstart the vital industry. Taking a page out of Cyprus’s tourism manual, Greece has quashed the idea of visitors having to be quarantined.

But in the battle to entice a bigger share of the diminished tourism sector Athens has also gone one step better than Cyprus, nixing the notion of obligatory immunity certificates and announcing that spot coronavirus tests will be conducted upon arrival at airports instead. 

Popular islands that appear to have remained remarkably Covid-19 free are also joining the charm offensive, cutting prices at resorts and hotels with the aim of luring crowds when destinations are relinked to the outside world through direct international flights on 1 July. 

For the first time in decades, an overnight stay on the Cycladic isle jewel of Santorini will become affordable – even if industry figures say health protocols have added heavily to running costs. 

“There’ll be some discounts of between 15% to 25% to make resorts more attractive,” said Antonis Iliopoulos, the president of local hoteliers. Occupancy rates on the volcanic island, long blighted by overtourism, are between 5% and 10% in late June. 

The party isle of Mykonos, whose prices last year surprised even the super-rich, is reportedly offering entire villas to rent for significantly low prices.

Across the Mediterranean, industry figures concede that ultimately all eyes will be on Germany this year. The nation’s habit of holidaymakers moving south in the summer months, combined with Berlin’s relatively successful containment of Covid-19, has raised hopes – and with them ever more extravagant package tour offers. 

With Tui and other tour operators already aggressively promoting Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal, hoteliers across the sea are hoping for a share of German tourism.