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What you need to know about travel to Cyprus

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What you need to know about travel to Cyprus

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

This July, it’s 50 years since Turkish forces landed and occupied the northern third of Cyprus, in the name of the Turkish Cypriot minority that totalled around a fifth of the island’s population. Ongoing UN-led peace talks have since been unsuccessful in reunifying the island and Cyprus remains divided in two: the southern Republic of Cyprus, largely populated by Greek Cypriots, and the Turkish-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The TRNC isn’t recognised by the UN, although many countries maintain diplomatic relations with the region.

What’s the background?

The island was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for more than 300 years but has always had a big Greek population, descended from a mixture of aboriginal inhabitants and early immigrants from the Peloponnese. In 1878, Cyprus, then ruled from Istanbul under the Ottoman Empire, was annexed by Britain. With its strategic position at a crossroads of three continents, the island had seen a series of previous colonisers, and had been ruled by Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans and Venetians. In 1960, following decades of Greek-Cypriot campaigns for enosis (union with Greece), Cyprus became an independent republic with a power share between its Greek and Turkish communities. Unrest followed and, in 1974, a Greek-led coup, which aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece, was followed by a Turkish invasion.

Is the north seeing increased tourism investment?

Newspapers including The Telegraph have reported that an influx of Russian investment is fuelling a building boom in Northern Cyprus. North Cyprus Tourism Centre noted: ‘There’s been a surge in the construction of new hotels to accommodate the [growing] demand: a five-star establishment in the Famagusta/Long Beach area recently opened its doors and hotel construction in other regions, such as Kyrenia and Bafra, is also underway. Additionally, there’s a growing emphasis on smaller, nature-intertwined accommodation focused on eco-agro tourism and providing luxury camping tourism in nature.’ It’s also anticipating an increase in visitor numbers since the opening of the new Ercan Airport terminal in 2023, and hopes to entice more UK tourists to the region, aiming for a total of two million visitors in 2024.

What about organised tours in the north?

Trans-border trips and tours of the island can be organised with the likes of Explore Worldwide and Responsible Travel. Explore has an eight-day Walking in Northern Cyprus tour taking in the Beşparmak Mountains, along moderate-graded forest trails and goat tracks, and ruined 12th-century Crusader castles. Responsible Travel says that some of its most popular holidays in Cyprus are walking trips in the north. “These take travellers into lesser-visited areas and support family-run hotels, locally owned restaurants and cultural heritage,” says Tim Williamson, joint-managing director. “We see the benefits of responsible tourism here; tourism that has the power to protect the region’s spectacular natural spaces as the industry develops, while providing sources of income for local people.”

Some practical considerations: ensure your travel insurance covers both destinations; the GHIC (formerly EHIC) Global Health Insurance Card is valid in Cyprus only. Turkish lira is the currency used in the north, although many establishments also accept euro and sterling. Euro is used in the south.

How easy is it to travel between the south and north now?

The island is divided, east to west, by a 110-mile-long demilitarised buffer zone monitored by the UN Peacekeeping Force. Known variously as the Green Line, the Dead Zone and the Buffer Zone, at some points it’s miles wide, at others, just a few steps. There are officially sanctioned crossing points, the most frequently used in the capital of Nicosia. Crossing from south to north (and back again) is straightforward, involving standard border checks and passport stamps. Foreign nationals who originate in the north and travel south will be considered to have entered the Republic of Cyprus illegally via what it terms the ‘Turkish Occupied Areas of the Republic of Cyprus’ and may face a fine or be declined entry. The north’s Ercan Airport doesn’t have international status, and flights either originate in or go via Turkey.

The ‘self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ is not recognised internationally, other than by Turkey. And the UK government only offers limited consular support, making travellers ‘more vulnerable and at greater risk’ according to the FCDO.

What about travelling by hire car between the two?

If you’re travelling from the south with a hire car, you’ll need special insurance to drive north of the border. This can be obtained at the checkpoint. However, rental agencies may not allow trans-border travel, so drop your hire car at the company’s Nicosia office, then either take a taxi or walk across the border where local hire car companies are available and also offer cross-border transfers. Most hire car companies in the north don’t allow travel into the south or offer valid insurance or assistance there.

Can I tour the buffer zone?

Nicosia is Europe’s only divided capital. Some tours visit points within or near the buffer zone, offering commentary on the history and politics of the conflict. The Home For Cooperation is one such tour provider. The building, in a former family home in the Nicosia buffer zone, serves as an inter-communal hub and a bridge-builder between separated communities, and offers guided walks in its vicinity. Tours by Locals offers guided trips across Cyprus led by locals and experts. They include a Nicosia cross-border history tour and a visit to the ‘Ghost Town’ of Varosha within the buffer zone, accessed via Famagusta, a Venetian-Lusignan walled city in the island’s north that’s home to the Cathedral of St Nicholas and the monastery of St Barnabas, Cyprus’s patron saint.  

What are visitor numbers like to the region?

North Cyprus Tourism Centre reported 1.854 million total visitors to the island’s north in 2023, a 6% increase on pre-pandemic 2019 visitor numbers. Visit Cyprus had around 3.8 million visitors in, 2023. The UK, its biggest market, represents about 34% of the total arrivals. It reported 1.3 million UK arrivals in 2023, up by 7.4% on 2022’s 1.2 million.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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