Cyprus is ready to go full steam ahead to develop special interest tourism, but there is always room for new ideas, expertise and investment, says Director General of the Cyprus Hotel Association Zacharias Ioannides.
Tourism and health are strong economic sectors in Cyprus, how do you see these two cooperating to develop medical tourism in Cyprus?
We are in the process of bringing together all the relevant stake holders and associations in both sectors to combine our efforts to develop a medical tourism product for Cyprus. We are incorporating the development of medical tourism in the 2014-2020 European Programme for Smart Expertise, which will allow us to allocate funds towards two specific elements. One is to facilitate our hospitals and clinics in getting the necessary international accreditations, which is of great importance in reassuring medical tourists of the standard and quality of care we provide. The other is to create an online portal with an A-Z directory combining all relevant information on health care providers, hotels and auxiliary services. The portal would provide prospective medical tourists with a convenient decision-making tool and help us create effective and targeted promotional campaigns.
Representatives of both sectors are excited about the prospects of medical tourism in Cyprus and are eager to find ways to cooperate. Synergies are the best way to create opportunities and establish Cyprus as an attractive destination. We already have all the fundamentals to create a thriving industry here, which is why we should not create unnecessary obstacles or have second thoughts about going forward. It is crucial that we work together to find the best solutions – always keeping in mind that the needs of the medical tourist should be at the centre of how we package our product. The basic principle of marketing is to identify what your client wants, so to develop a successful medical tourism industry we must look at the full journey of a patient coming to Cyprus.
What kind of advantages does medical tourism present to the Cypriot hotel industry?
Creating a thriving medical tourism market would naturally increase the number of visitors to the island and increase business for various tourism entrepreneurs. Traditionally, tourism in Cyprus is seasonal with summer being the busiest time for hotels. During the winter months many hotels have a very low occupancy or even shut their doors until the next summer. One of our most basic yet important ingredients to capitalise on is that we have a warm and sunny climate all year round. We have already launched a push for promoting special interest tourism in the quieter winter months, which in turn would give a boost to the hotel industry too. The winter season could be more attractive to some medical tourists and would increase the utilisation of our hotels, which are big investments.
There could be great potential to revive our once-thriving market of attracting Northern European retirees. Thanks to our mild and sunny winters, Cyprus was the destination of choice for many Scandinavian retirees over the long and cold northern winters. For example, some decades ago we used to attract over 120,000 Finnish holidaymakers to spend their winters in Cyprus, as it was cheaper to come here than pay for heating bills back home. They would often arrive with the last summer charter flights and return home again with the first summer season charters. Filling these empty ‘legs’ was also beneficial to tour operators. Regaining this and other similar markets would help hotels in their efforts to have higher occupancy rates during these slower periods.
Your association represents the majority of the hotel industry in Cyprus, are you seeing interest and investment into medical tourism?
With the growing trend in this type of tourism we are seeing that the higher hotel categories, as in five-star establishments, are keen to develop tailor-made facilities to cater to medical tourists and some have begun individually cooperating withprivate clinics and hospitals. However, there is not yet a consistent approach from our industry in terms of trying to attract medical tourists specifically. Hotels are being prudent for the moment, but will probably begin to invest in modifications to their facilities to accommodate this niche tourism once a national strategic plan with clear aims is in place.
How could the hotels in Cyprus better cater to increasing numbers of medical tourists?
Hotels in Cyprus already operate to high standards, but with this type of tourism other factors must be taken into consideration, such as good accessibility into rooms and common areas and modified bathrooms and toilets. It is not enough to just project yourself as open and accommodating in this industry, you must make the effort to exceed expectations and make your clients’ stay both comfortable and enjoyable – whether they are here for medical reasons or for leisure. Failing to deliver on your promises is the biggest mistake you can make, as word of mouth is the most effective means of promotion today. Most hotels in Cyprus are well-equipped, but they should take a holistic approach to identify how they can further develop their services and facilities to complement the needs of medical tourists. Many already offer various wellness services to visitors, but they could expand more into health treatments and develop stronger alliances with clinics and hospitals to boost their business.
From a foreign investor point of view, what opportunities does Cyprus offer? Is there enough domestic investment to develop this industry or would Cyprus require foreign investment to bring these plans to fruition?
There is an extensive range of expertise in Cyprus and our medical professionals are highly qualified on an international level, providing us with the necessary human capital and infrastructure. However, we welcome all additional foreign investment in projects that could further enrich the spectrum of what Cyprus has to offer – whether in building more medical centres, resorts incorporating health services or other infrastructure projects. Rehabilitation centres and even retirement homes could be very attractive investment projects, as these areas are relatively untapped opportunities in Cyprus. We are currently in an adequate position to go full steam ahead to develop this type of special interest tourism, but there is always room for new ideas, expertise and investment.
What challenges does Cyprus face in creating a thriving medical tourism industry and how could these issues be resolved?
To keep our competitive edge we must constantly find ways to upgrade our product and as an association we are glad to see many of our hotels investing in significant renovations and development of their services. However, accessibility is an absolute key factor of successfully attracting medical tourists. Frequent direct air connections to your target markets are essential. You may have the best accredited hospitals and hotels, but if you do not have convenient and cost-effective transport options how can you be attractive as a prospective destination? There are already various connections to Cyprus, but we must work harder to open new routes with competitive fares. I am optimistic that we can achieve this as great efforts have already been made to provide more incentives to airlines.
We must capitalise on our strategic geographical position as the nearest European destination to some of the most rapidly developing markets, such as North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Establishing better connections would also bolster other economic sectors and further enhance our role as a regional business centre. There is no reason why Cyprus could not develop into a significant air communications hub, especially now that we have an emerging oil and gas industry. In the next five years we aim to increase our tourist numbers from 2.5 million to 3.5 million. This is a completely feasible target if all the stakeholders work together and developing Cyprus as a leading medical tourism destination will only help us achieve our goals.