LARNACA, Cyprus — An Israeli airliner with 22 passengers aboard became the first commercial flight to touch down in Cyprus Tuesday, after the east Mediterranean country reopened its airports following an 11-week ban aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
Nora Reich, a passenger aboard the Israir Airlines turboprop that arrived at Larnaca International Airport from Tel Aviv, said she had rushed to catch the first flight to Cyprus to see her newborn granddaughter.
“My daughter is with her family. They are diplomats here,” Reich told The Associated Press. “And now she has a baby; she delivered a baby girl. I came with the first flight to see her.”
Larnaca reopened to passengers for the first time since a ban on commercial flights was imposed on 21 March. “After two and a half months, the connectivity of our island with 19 other countries returns. Cypriot airports open with optimism with the first flight arriving at Larnaca from Israel,” Transport Minister Yiannis Karousos tweeted.
Karousos was at Larnaca to welcome the first arrivals.
Israel is among a group of 19 countries with low coronavirus infection rates from which Cyprus is now permitting commercial flights.
According to the airport’s operator Hermes, five arrivals and five departures were scheduled from Larnaca on Tuesday. The first departure was an Aegean Airlines flight which left at 8 a.m. for Athens. The first arrival was the Israir Airlines plane from Tel Aviv at 10:30 a.m.
Arriving passengers must secure health certificates declaring them coronavirus-free three days before departure.
The requirement is set to expire June 20 for people coming from 13 of those countries, including Greece, Finland, Norway and Germany.
Tourism-dependent Cyprus is eager to resume commercial flights in hopes of salvaging the summer tourist season.
Karousos said the country is looking to capitalize on its comparatively mild COVID-19 outbreak to attract holidaymakers. Cyprus, which has a population of around 880,000, had a total of 970 confirmed cases and 18 virus-related deaths as of Tuesday.
“This is what Cyprus will sell this year, is the excellent results we have with regards to the coronavirus,” Karousos said. “Cyprus would be a safe place to be.”
Karousos said it’s projected that the country will see about 35% of the nearly 4 million passenger arrivals it had for all of last year. Tourism directly accounts for 13% of Cyprus’ gross domestic product.
The minister said it’s expected that monthly arrivals will peak at 600,000 passengers during September and October from countries including Poland and Denmark.
Normally at this time of year, the island fills with Northern European tourists drawn by its pristine Mediterranean beaches.
Cyprus came out top in a survey of European beaches published by the European Environment Agency on Monday with 99.1 percent of its beaches boasting excellent water quality.
Paphos airport in the west of the island will welcome its first flights on June 21.
Britons, Russians kept away
Under its exit lockdown road map, Cyprus is initially opening its airports to the select band of 19 countries that are considered low risk, but the island’s two biggest markets, Britain and Russia, are not on the approved list.
Sweden, France, Belgium and the Netherlands are also not listed.
From June 20, there will be no need to provide a health certificate from 13 of the 19 countries and another six countries will be added to the list including Switzerland, Romania and Poland.
Cyprus says it will update the list of approved countries on a weekly basis based on scientific data.
There will also be temperature checks and random testing of travelers, free of charge, when they arrive on the island.
To attract tourists to the island, the government has pledged to cover the medical costs of any visitor who tests positive for the coronavirus while enjoying a holiday on the Mediterranean island.
Authorities estimate that tourist arrivals this year, which had been projected at nearly 4 million before the coronavirus, will fall by as much as 70 percent, dealing a heavy blow to the sector, which generates around 15 per cent of the island’s GDP.
Revenue from tourism generated 2.68 billion euros in 2019, down 1 percent from the previous year, bolstered by record arrivals of 3.97 million.
Cyprus says it has one of the lowest ratios of coronavirus cases per capita in Europe, having tested around 12 percent of its population.
The Republic of Cyprus has a total of 970 coronavirus cases and 18 deaths.
Last July, a British tourist accused 12 young Israeli men of gang-raping her at a hotel in the holiday resort of Ayia Napa, prompting their brief arrest. The 19-year-old woman later retracted the claim, a move she alleged happened under police duress.
The Israelis were freed and the woman went on to be convicted for making false allegations. In January, she received a suspended sentence in the case and returned to the UK. The high-profile case was spotlighted in Israel, Cyprus and the United Kingdom.