KYKKOS MONASTERY, Cyprus (AP) — Archimandrite Agathonikos bows before a silver-plated icon of the Mother of God to offer prayers for an end to the war between “unireligious peoples” in Ukraine.
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox believers came daily to venerate the relics. Tradition says that it was molded by the Evangelist Luke from beeswax and mastic and blessed by the Mother of God herself as the true embodiment of her image.
Due to the war and the European Union’s ban on flights from Russia, the roughly 800,000 Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers who flock to Cyprus each year for its warm azure waters and religious history dating back to the dawn of Christianity have all but vanished. In a record-breaking 2019, they made up one-fifth of all tourists to the Mediterranean island nation south of Turkey.
“Today we had many believers from these two countries,” Agathonikos said. “I wish and pray to our Mother of God that the path to peace be shown to these two peoples who are fighting today – believers in both countries should pray for this.”
He is the abbot of the Kykkos monastery on the northeastern ridge of the Troodos mountain range in Cyprus, where the icon has been kept for nearly a thousand years. He, the tomb of St. Lazarus in Larnaca and the monastery of Stavrovouni, which houses much of the Holy Cross, are important Cypriot stops for Russians and Ukrainians on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Agathonikos said.
Their absence this year, triggered by a sharp decline in tourism at the start of the pandemic, has slashed the revenues of a country whose tourism sector accounts for more than 10% of its economy. Other countries that rely on visitors from Russia and Ukraine, such as Turkey, Cuba and Egypt, also braced for losses as tourism began to bounce back.
Cypriot Deputy Minister of Tourism Savvas Perdios estimates that losses from Russian and Ukrainian visitors this year will be around 600 million euros ($645 million), with visitor numbers expected to approach 2019 levels before the war.
Cyprus is one of the shortest flights from Russia to any Mediterranean holiday destination, but the EU flight ban has wiped out that advantage.
Business suffers, especially local travel agencies that work with large tour operators focused on the Russian market. Some hotels on the popular east coast of Cyprus that cater to holidaymakers from Russia are also struggling, said Haris Loizides, president of the board of the Cyprus Hotel Association.
According to him, an additional burden for hotel owners is high inflation, which has led to an increase in operating costs.
Vassos Sidias, owner of the seafood tavern that bears his name overlooking Ayia Napa’s small harbor, says his business has fallen by as much as 50% this year due to the loss of the Russian market.
“There is a huge problem in our work,” Xydias said, “Now let’s see how…