Cyprus’s decision to allow vaccinated Britons entry to the country ahead of the rest of the EU was spurred by the bloc’s reluctance to take a decisive stance on Covid-19 immunity certificates, a tourism minister has said.
Explaining why the country had broken ranks with other EU members by deciding to admit Britons with the certificate from 1 May, Savvas Perdios told the Guardian that visitors, holidaymakers, and the travel industry all “needed clarity”, which the step sought to deliver.
“We felt that we had to announce it because we don’t know when an agreement will be reached at a European level,” Perdios said. “For people who are going to be travelling here, we wanted to provide certainty that Cyprus is going to be ready to welcome them. Travel planning requires certainty.”
The move, unveiled late on Thursday, came as the bloc struggled to forge a united front on “vaccine passports” first proposed by Greece in January. Tourist-reliant countries on Europe’s south-east fringe appear increasingly willing to act independently as they desperately seek to salvage industries battered by the pandemic.
Cyprus draws 13% of its national income from tourism, and 10% of its workforce is employed in the sector.
Before the pandemic, Britons far surpassed all other arrivals to the former British colony, ethnically split between Greeks in the south and Turks in the north since 1974.
An estimated 1.3 million UK tourists visited the south in 2019 – almost twice the local population. As in Greece, which had attracted record numbers before the pandemic but suffered a massive drop last year, tourism in Cyprus was pummelled in 2020.
In February, Nicosia and Athens reached a deal with Israel allowing citizens with Covid-19 vaccination certificates to travel unimpeded between the three countries. The accord is expected to come into effect at the end of this month.
Perdios said Anglo-Cypriot teams were already in talks to discuss the details of how vaccine passports would work as part of a similar bilateral agreement with the UK.
“It’s a matter of technicalities as to what the certificate will look like. We’ll have further meetings in the next few days and weeks to finalise everything,” he said, emphasising that Greek Cypriot authorities were prepared to be flexible about what format the document eventually took. “We will use whatever the UK government wants us to use. It is the UK that will decide whether the certificate will be digital or whether it will be a certificate from a GP … We will not be asking to have a vaccine certificate based on our design.”
Bookings to the island have risen since Boris Johnson announced his government’s roadmap out of England’s third national lockdown.
Although 17 May was set as the earliest possible date for the resumption of international travel by the British leader, Perdios said Nicosia had also decided to include the UK in quarantine-free travel as of next month. Since the emergence of Covid-19 variants, all non-essential travel out of the UK has been banned, with rare exceptions.
But with Greek Cypriot authorities mindful of the island’s large community of British expatriates, Perdios said anyone arriving from the UK as of 1 April would be given special dispensation in line with restrictions recently lifted for incomers from the EU. This week the island began accepting travellers based on a country categorisation system with colour codes defining the epidemiological caseload of each member state.
“No matter which category [Britain] is in, people flying in from the UK will not be placed in quarantine unless they test positive and have to be put into isolation. We basically guarantee quarantine-free travel from the UK as from 1 April,” he said. “What comes into effect on top of that on May 1 is that those who have a vaccine certificate will be facilitated so they do not have to do a test as well.”
Cyprus has said that inoculated visitors will have to have had two jabs, both approved by the European Medicines Agency.
Tourists who contract the virus in the country will continue to be covered by the Cypriot government, with the state picking up “all costs” for them and their dependants in a repeat of a scheme initiated last year.
“But we are not only opening up to vaccinated travellers,” Perdios added. “Everybody will be allowed to travel here, with or without certificates, and of course the date of travel depends on the UK government and when it decides to allow outbound travel.”