A New Form of Ecotourism in Cyprus
Big tour operators are backing a new kind of eco-tourism in Cyprus. Richard Hammond sees it in action...
The owner of the Kamarez Inn shook his head, ruing the power cut he had suffered before our arrival at his village. It wasn't the morning's electricity that proved to be the only thing absent from this Cypriot mountain village: though it had 150 houses, there were only a handful of inhabitants - the inn-keeper, his mother and three old men. Not exactly what your average package holidaymaker expects to encounter on a day's excursion in Cyprus, but this was no ordinary trip.
The tour was organised by Support Abandoned Villages and their Environments (Save), a Cypriot organisation supported by a new UK-based charity - the Travel Foundation - created to help manage tourism more sustainably and increase economic benefits to local communities.
From December, travellers using any of the main four travel companies - First Choice, My Travel, Thomas Cook and Thomson - will be asked to make a voluntary contribution to eco-projects.
The Travel Foundation, launched in July, was developed from a Foreign Office initiative at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, and includes more than 40 companies.
Next month, First Choice will ask customers to consider giving the foundation 10p per adult, 5p per child. The move will be advertised in its summer brochures.
Sunvil Holidays is already donating 50p per booking and from November will be asking customers to do the same. Other leading firms will announce the details of their contributions next week at the Association of British Travel Agents' annual conference in Palma.
One of the first sustainable tourism projects the Travel Foundation helped develop was the Save project in Cyprus. Over the last 30 years, as mass tourism has engulfed the southern part of the island (each year more than one million Britons visit), the inhabitants of mountain villages have moved to seek work along the busy coastal strips and tourist towns, leaving behind unfarmed land, deserted buildings and dwindling, elderly populations.
In an effort to reverse this trend and provide holidaymakers with a more enlightened cultural experience, Save is taking small-scale, controlled excursions up to the mountains, where holidaymakers can contribute to the economic livelihoods of villagers and help regenerate their communities.
At a glance, the itinerary for the Save trip, which you can book through the main tour operators in Cyprus, looked like any standard day trip; and the cost, £38 including lunch, was comparative with other trips to the Troödos Mountains.
So could we be sure the Save tour wasn't just an alternative money-making excursion under the convenient veil of cultural and environmental worthiness? According to Paula Strang, Thomson Holidays overseas sales development adviser, about half the money from the Save tour pays for the agent who runs the tour, local tax, the 22-seater minibus and a local tour guide. Direct contributions per tour are also made to the Troödos National Park Visitor Centre and to the local businesses that the tourists come across.
The trip was fully booked, and, after picking up all 22 holidaymakers from hotels along the Paphos coast, we headed towards the Troödos Mountains. First stop was the almost deserted village of Lofou, home to the Kamarez Inn and not much more. The owner said he was very keen to have more guests to visit, not just for business, but because 'more people, more life'. And you can sympathise with him; since the colossal rise of mass tourism on the Cypriot coast he has witnessed his village become a ghost town.
Having gratefully accepted his business card and promised to tell all and sundry about his lonely but hospitable inn, we continued through the mountains towards a second village. On the way we stopped at the visitor centre and the mouflon (Cypriot goat) game reserve at Platania, which has about the same number of goats as people in Lofou.
At Spilia, there were 150 inhabitants - a virtual metropolis compared with the previous place - though in more prosperous times there had been more than 600. After a brief visit to a local baker, we were taken to the Marjay Inn where the owners, Jerey and Eleni, served us lunch consisting entirely of local produce, including halloumi, spiced sausages, fresh tomatoes and olives. Jerey explained that the Save initiative was helping him and Eleni develop their business, as well as providing a living for other local producers.
'Save is providing an alternative travel product that is giving something back to the people of Cyprus,' he said. Last year Eleni had been preparing to leave Spilia for Nicosia, as so many others had done, but she has now changed her mind because she can make a living from the trade Save brings to the village.
During our visit to Spilia, we were free to wander about the village, 'to experience the authentic Cypriot mountain village life'.
'It's amazing,' said my lunch-time companion, a builder from Rotherham, 'I just made a comment out loud about the local handiwork and this old guy came over and chatted for 15 minutes about Cypriot limestone; you wouldn't get that in Paphos!'
Jerey is confident that the Save initiative will succeed, because he says it provides tour operators with another type of product for the increasingly discerning holidaymaker. 'Tourists have changed,' he said. 'They no longer want to be fobbed off with the stereotypical holidays of sun, beach and old ruins, they now want more from their holiday.'
The builder was typical of this new kind of tourist. He told me that he and his wife 'don't settle into a holiday unless we have seen something of the real country'.
But if the idea catches on and the villages become inundated with tourists, won't the authenticity of the villages be ruined? According to Jerey, that will never happen. The village council has agreed a maximum number of minibus visits to the village per week. 'That way, the village won't become solely dependent on tourism,' he said.
It was the small-scale nature of the initiative that was the key to its sustain ability, believed Jerey, and controlling visitor numbers was vital to maintaining sensitivities, providing the right balance of visitors and trade so that the villagers welcome the visits.
So did the day match up to its promises? Although the trip included features in common with other day excursions, such as a visit to Petra tou Romiou (Aphrodite's birthplace), visiting the abandoned villages gave a fascinating insight into Cypriot life. One of my travel companions, Ena from Sheffield, said the trip was much better than the other 50-seater coach trips she had been on as she 'didn't feel it was as touristy and yet we got to see the real Cyprus at the same time as supporting local people'.
Angela Mazzey, First Choice Cyprus area manager, said the feedback from tourists who have gone on the Save trip has been excellent, and all four operators are planning to run a second excursion to other mountain villages from next spring. She said it was often repeat visitors to Cyprus that sign up to the tour as they see it as a different type of trip; more interactive than other tours and supportive of a good cause. 'So it's good for the mountain village communities and good for our customer satisfaction,' she said.
Although Save's organisers don't expect to reverse overnight the mass exodus of villagers to tourist towns, they have welcomed the collaboration of all four main operators with local environmental groups and tourism organisations to run a detailed, sensitive tour of this kind. And as an ongoing, workable project, the organisers are hopeful that this co-operation will serve as a model for other small-scale sustainable tourism projects in other parts of Cyprus.
Judging from the positive feedback I witnessed, it has the potential to be replicated throughout the Mediterranean.
Getting there: Richard Hammond travelled with First Choice (0870 850 3929) which offers seven nights half board at the Pioneer Beach Hotel in Paphos from £349 per person, and seven nights, half board at the Apollonia Beach Hotel in Limassol from £429 per person. Both prices include return flights from Gatwick to Paphos, transfers, accommodation, security levy and in-flight meal.
Getting around: The Save day trip (from Paphos only) costs £38 per person, including lunch. Bookings are made with holiday tour reps in Paphos. Further information: The Travel Foundation, 01179 273049.
This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the Observer.