What I saw on that one day was enough to make me vow to return for a proper visit the next year. It was idyllic, the Mediterranean at its best, as it had been in the days before package tourism, with the perfect combination of forested mountain backdrops, empty beaches, family hotels and restaurants, historic churches, castles and stunning archaeological sites.
The northern, Turkish-speaking part of Cyprus – 37% of the island’s territory – still remains much less visited than the Greek south. No-one denies that when the island was divided in 1974, the Turks took the more beautiful and fertile region, but while holidaymakers jostled for beach space at Paphos and Limassol, for many years it was a case of spot the tourist at Girne (Kyrenia) and Gazimağusa (Famagusta). The Greek Cypriots are skilful political lobbyists and since 1974 have conducted an effective boycott of the north, presenting it as ‘occupied and inaccessible’. They have done an excellent job, as both the economy and tourist industry in the north have stagnated. Only an initiated few saw through the propaganda and went to find out for themselves, and many became loyal devotees who returned each year to enjoy the wealth of cultural sites and the relaxing atmosphere.
The Greek Cypriots have also done a good job of rebuilding the tourist industry in the south, but in doing so have disfigured the landscape with concrete high-rise buildings, fast-food restaurants and associated ill-considered tourist-tat shops. Less commercially minded than their southern counterparts, the Turkish Cypriots have until recently hatched few ambitious development projects of their own, and were in any event starved of the international finance needed to carry them out. For better and for worse, times are changing. With the establishment of seven border crossing points to date (Yeşilirmak being the most recent addition), more flights into Ercan, EU money starting to filter through to improve the infrastructure, and an economy supported by Turkey, the north is no longer an isolated backwater. Admittedly, North Cyprus’s tourist economy still suffers from the ban on direct flights from anywhere other than Turkey, but the enthusiastic construction of ‘casino’ hotels has ensured a continuing flow of Turkish visitors from the mainland. Add to this a loyal band of European and other visitors who return year after year, and you have the makings of a healthy tourist industry.
Property investment has also been big business, perhaps too big: recent out-of-control levels of development represent a lesson unlearned from elsewhere in the Mediterranean. The global economic crisis brought the party to a grinding halt in recent times, with hundreds of empty villas, abandoned development projects and a new west-to-east road that ended in dust. After a contemplative hiatus, there are signs that – for better or worse, or both – things are moving again. The road to the Karpas is inching its way east, taking with it associated development and posing the question as to whether the warning signs of potential overdevelopment have in any way been heeded. On a positive note, there are individuals and organisations working hard to promote awareness of sustainable tourism, with real success.
For now, it’s still possible to leave the main population areas behind and discover that the rural, tranquil charm of North Cyprus remains most definitely in place. Over the mountains from Girne and out in the Karpas, goatherds tend their flocks and the menfolk sip sweet tea before the next vigorous game of backgammon. Apart from the huge casino complexes, family-owned hotels and restaurants are the norm, as is the warm and genuine hospitality that such establishments offer the visitor. With a good meze and glass of wine, the north can still offer some of the most unspoilt and welcoming corners of the Mediterranean.
Prices in North Cyprus remain reasonable, although inflation and growing tourism have nudged costs up. Restaurant prices have been particularly susceptible, and a meal for two with wine now costs around TL65–85. The consolation is that the cuisine is tasty, and standards are high. Hotels remain good value, particularly in the mid-range sector popular with independent visitors, and car hire is also reasonably priced with mid-season daily rates from TL40. Turkish Cypriots are very friendly and hospitable and do not as a rule hassle or pester visitors. Petty crime rates are very low and the environment is safe and, outside population centres, pollution-free. There are daily flights from the UK to Ercan encompassing a politically expedient touchdown in Turkey. Budget and charter airlines increasingly service the airports in the south, and a flight to Larnaca followed by an hour’s airport transfer and a hassle-free border crossing barely represents an inconvenience to the visitor to the north. Although the vast majority of the region’s visitors are Turkish, both Greek Cypriots and foreigners are once again exploring the north of the island.
The political status of the north is an emotive subject for both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Ironically, the political situation has worked in the tourist’s favour, secreting North Cyprus beyond the range of the worst excesses of mass tourism (temporarily, at least); it is here that the Mediterranean of 20 years ago can still be recaptured in places.
Ensuring that its natural environment is maintained and the genuine welcome of its people is not diminished by exposure to the negative aspects of increased tourism remains firmly the responsibility of visitors – we can all do our part in keeping North Cyprus special. Turkish Cypriots are always warm and respectful hosts but visitors who reciprocate will be the ones who benefit most.
Since 1974, descriptions of the north have been inevitably relegated to the back few pages of travel guides covering the whole island. Here it is given the comprehensive coverage it deserves. Right now North Cyprus remains at a crossroads: it is still ‘another country’ and for the inhabitants of a divided island, identity is understandably an emotive issue. Turkish-speaking Cypriots possess a distinct ethnicity together with their own cultural and religious traditions. Waves of immigration from Turkey, an influx of guest workers from the Indian subcontinent and African students attending the universities, together with emigration by Turkish-speaking Cypriots to the UK and elsewhere have seen Turkish-speaking Cypriots reduced to a minority in their own land. However, though the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus is only recognised by Turkey and the economic and cultural links are plain for all to see, it is most definitely not the same country. Across these pages, references to Turkish in the context of North Cyprus should be read simply as a method of differentiating between the subject and the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus.
My first trip to Cyprus was as a tax exile aged 24 after working in Oman. A financial consultant told me that if I returned direct to the UK I would be giving the taxman a nice big present, so he advised me to sit it out in Cyprus for a few months, a place well known at that time for having the cheapest cost of living in Europe. As I endured three months of enforced leisure in the tiny village of Drousha, I found myself getting curious about the mysterious north of the island, thanks to an old guidebook which pre-dated the 1974 partition and which showed enticing photos of Crusader castles and ruins like Salamis. This was the early 1980s when travel to the north of the island had to be applied for 48 hours in advance for permission to cross over the Green Line at the Ledra Palace border post in Nicosia and the permit allowed entry for just one day, in daylight hours only.
Even so, what I saw on that one day was enough to make me vow to return for a proper visit the next year on my annual holiday, entering via the Turkish mainland and Ercan airport. It was idyllic, the Mediterranean at its best, as it had been in the days before package tourism, with the perfect combination of forested mountain backdrops, empty beaches, family hotels and restaurants, historic churches, castles and stunning archaeological sites. It became my favoured family holiday destination for several years running, and I seriously considered buying a villa in Bellapais, but never had quite enough money to buy what I wanted. Repeated visits to write the guidebook whilst based in Cairo were the next best thing, so I settled for that instead.
Now, years later, crossing over from the Greek side is a simple matter, with no time restrictions, and though it is inevitably busier than in its sleepy days of the 1980s, it still remains a joy to visit, far quieter than the Greek side, yet as beautiful as ever.