Cyprus expects a record number of tourists to arrive in 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus expects to hit another record number of tourists this year, with visits to the east Mediterranean island expected to increase 5 percent over last year, a tourism official said Thursday.

That's on top of a record-setting 2016, which saw almost 3.2 million holidaymakers arrive — a 17 percent increase over the previous year, said Angelos Loizou, chairman of the Cyprus Tourism Organization.

He credits a complete overhaul three years ago of how Cyprus markets its tourism as the primary reason for the boost after the island lost potential tourists to nearby markets such as Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. He said working closely with tour operators to gauge and cater to visitor preferences helped bring about the turnaround.

Loizou pointed to the example of the U.K. market which is rebounding after dropping four years ago to nearly half of the 2001 high of 1.5 million arrivals.

"We always want to describe our tourism product as an up-market one, not just sun and surf," Loizou told The Associated Press. He said religious tourism, sports clubs training during the mild winter months and a stream of couples traveling for civil marriages are boosting arrivals.

He said the tourism industry directly and indirectly contributes more than 20 percent of the country's 17.6 billion-euro ($18.5 billion) economy. Loizou projected the industry's contribution to the gross domestic product this year to be as high as 22 percent.

The upshot to that is more people are being put back to work. Loizou said as much 11 percent of the island's total workforce will be employed in the tourism industry this year, up from around 9 percent in 2016.

The CTO chief said tourism was vital to helping steer a near-bankrupt Cyprus out of a 2013 international bailout program. Tourism-related revenues reached 2.36 billion euros ($2.48 billion) last year, a nearly 12 percent increase over 2016. Loizou said each tourist spends around 760 euros ($800) per visit.

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